Category Archives: French History

Inside the Mind and Time of Victor Hugo

 

 

 

David Bellos, The Novel of the Century:

The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables 

            When first published on April 4, 1862, Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables was an immediate best seller – in today’s parlance, a “blockbuster” but also, at 1,900 pages in the original French, a “doorstopper” (the English translation was a mere 1,500 pages).  Hugo in 1862 was among France’s most revered writers, but was then living in exile on the Channel Island of Guernsey, having fled several years earlier from what he considered the dictatorial regime of Louis-Napoléon, better known as Napoléon III.  Hugo intended Les Misérables, his epic tale of reconciliation and redemption, with its searing portraits of the poor and those at society’s margins, to be the culmination of his already illustrious career as a novelist, poet and playwright.  It didn’t take long after Les Misérables’ initial publication for Hugo to conclude that his novel would easily meet his lofty aspirations.

             Over a century and half later, Hugo’s Les Misérables remains in the forefront of literary classics, still read in the original French and in countless translations in all the world’s major languages.  Within weeks of its publication, moreover, Les Misérables was turned into a play, and in the 20th century became the subject of more adaptations for radio, stage and screen than any just about any other literary work.  But David Bellos, professor of French and comparative literature at Princeton University, worries that Les Misérables’ extraordinary staying power and its enduring mass market appeal has led too many to dismiss the novel as a work that falls below the level of great art.

            In The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables, Bellos seeks to dispel such notions by getting inside Victor Hugo’s mind and his time as he pieced together Les Misérables.   Much like Alice Kaplan’s Looking For “The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic, reviewed here in April, Bellos’ work could be considered a “biography of a book.”  In an introductory chapter, “The Journey of Les Misérables,” Bellos provides an overview to the novel, its setting and its multiple twists and improbable turns, all highly useful for readers who have not read the novel for several years if at all.

       Here he introduces the novel’s principal characters: Jean Valjean, famously sentenced to hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread, whose twenty-year quest to rehabilitate himself constitutes the novel’s “narrative backbone” (p.xviii); Fantine, an abandoned single mother who loses her job, falls into prostitution and meets an early death; her illegitimate daughter Cosette, entrusted to Valjean’s care after her mother’s death; Javert, the policeman who pursues Valjean relentlessly throughout the novel; the inn-keeping couple the Thénardiers, and their urchin children, Éponine and Gavroche; and Marius, a student and budding political activist who falls in love with Cosette.

              Les Misérables consists of five parts, with 48 “books” (Bellos too has divided his work into five parts, surely not coincidentally).  Hugo’s Part I is entitled “Fantine;” Part II, “Cosette,” in which the young girl is saved by Valjean from cruel foster parents after her mother’s death; Part III, “Marius,” focusing on the student’s life on the barricades in his fight to overcome the monarchy; Part IV, “The Idyll of Rue Plumer and the Epic of Rue Saint Denis,” two Parisian streets, the first where the love affair of Cosette and Marius blossomed, the second where Marius fought in a political barricade; and Part V, simply “Jean Valjean.”  Each of the 48 books has chapters, 365 in all.  With many of the chapters quite short, Bellos suggests a chapter per day over the course of a year for those who want to read or reread the novel.

               The individuals who surrounded Hugo as he wrote Les Misérables loom as large in Bellos’ work as the characters in the novel itself.   Hugo and his wife Adèle Foucher had five children, the first of whom died in infancy.  Their oldest daughter Léopoldine died in a boating accident at age 19, the “gravest emotional wound in Hugo’s life “ (p.98). Their last child, daughter Adèle, kept a diary from an early age that provides a major portion of the record about the evolution of Les Misérables,.  Adèle was in the forefront of an innovative campaign to market the novel across Europe (her unrequited love for a British military officer was the subject of the 1975 François Trauffaut film, The Story of Adèle H).  Hugo’s older son Charles also played a major role in arranging for publication of Les Misérables, while younger son François-Victor became a literary heavyweight in his own right through his translations into French of the major works of Shakespeare.

           An additional presence throughout Bellos’ account is Hugo’s long-term  mistress, Juliette Drout, an aspiring actress who followed Hugo into exile.  While living in quarters separate from the Hugo family, Juliette became Hugo’s regular traveling companion and served informally as his secretary and confidante (Juliette was traveling with Hugo when he learned of daughter Léopoldine’s death).  But Bellos adds that Hugo was a “serial philanderer” (p.30), with ample supplements to his on-going extra-marital liaison with Juliette and his legal attachment to wife Adèle.

          Les Misérables begins in 1815 and extends to 1835.  Hugo wrote the novel in fits and starts between 1845 and 1862.  The period between 1815 and 1862 encompasses some of the most dramatic upheavals of France’s turbulent and often violent 19th century.  The final defeat of Napoléon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo and the “Bourbon restoration” of Louis XVIII as a constitutional monarch took place in the fateful year 1815.  By 1862, France was in the midst of the “Second Empire” of Louis-Napoléon (Napoléon III), the nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte, who in a coup d’etat in 1851 had ended France’s Second Republic, the event that sent Hugo into exile.  In addition to the 1851 coup, the first half of the century witnessed periodic uprisings against the government, among them: the 1830 “July Revolution,” which ousted Louis XVIII’s successor Charles X in favor of Louis-Philippe d’Orleans; a mini-1832 rebellion which unsuccessfully sought to reverse the 1830 July Revolution, an uprising critical to Hugo’s novel but less so to French history; and the February 1848 revolution in which Louis-Napoléon deposed Louis-Philippe and established the Second French Republic, an uprising in which Hugo was directly involved.

            Bellos’ account shines in its illumination of how these events and the broader currents of 19th century French history affected both Hugo himself and the novel he was working on.  To enhance our understanding of the novel and its seventeen year gestation period, Bellos includes what he terms “interludes,” short digressions on diverse but pragmatic subjects, such as regional and class differences in language in Hugo’s time; money and credit in 19th century France; intellectual property protection and the technical process involved in publishing books in the mid-19th century; and transportation in the time of Les Misérables (people walked a lot more then than they do today).  Bellos also delves into how Hugo’s political and religious views entered into his novel.

            Although Les Misérables is a “progressive” work which “surely expresses moral outrage at the plight of the poor,” (p.219), Bellos cautions that it should not be considered a tract for the emerging views of the European left.  Subtly, however, the novel traced out a “limited if still ambitious program of social action” (p.202-03): more humane criminal justice, with easier entry back into society for offenders, more education, and more jobs for the uneducated.  Hugo, who had never been baptized and did not subscribe to any established religion or cult, considered Les Misérables to be a religious but not Catholic work.  Hugo’s novel argues for “natural religion” capable of bridging the conflicts between Catholics and non-Catholics, and between believers and non-believers, conflicts which in Hugo’s view exacerbated the disparities between rich and poor.  Les Misérables is thus, as Bellos puts it, a “work of reconciliation — between the classes, but also between the conflicting currents that turn our own lives into storms. It is not a reassuring tale of the triumph of good over evil, but a demonstration of how hard it is to be good” (p.xxiv).

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             Bellos notes that Les Misérables was already an “historical” novel when it first appeared in 1862.  With its story set in a past that had ended over a quarter of a century earlier, the novel could immediately be read as an “exercise in nostalgia for a vanished world . . . [and as] an unintended guide to the way things used to be” (p.54).  To dig into the novel’s 1815-to-1835 period is thus to dig into Hugo’s own adolescence and his formative early adult years.  The son of a soldier who fought in Napoleon Bonaparte’s wars, Hugo turned 13 in 1815.

               A precocious literary youth, by 1815 Hugo had already demonstrated a flair for poetry.  By 1832, the year he turned 30, Hugo was among France’s best-known poets who had published a handful of novels, among them the immensely popular Notre Dame de Paris (known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame). 1832 marked the death of Germany’s Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the “undisputed eminence of European literature for the preceding half-century.”  Bellos notes that Hugo considered himself the logical candidate to step into Goethe’s shoes as “European genius-in-chief” (p.4). 1832 was also the year of the unsuccessful two-day revolt against the July monarchy, a minor episode in France’s 19th century which Hugo elevated to the center of Les Misérables through Marius’ participation in its events.

               The first draft of Hugo’s novel, whose title was initially Les Misères, was written in Paris between November 1845 and February 1848. Although this draft no longer exists, scholars have concluded that its plot corresponds closely to that of the final version.  1845 was also the year when Hugo was appointed a peer in France’s upper legislative chamber.  He was working on Marius’ involvement in the 1832 upheaval at the time of the 1848 uprising against the regime of King Louis-Philippe, and found himself, improbably, on the front lines defending the regime – an “experience like no other Hugo had ever had, and not easy to square with his views, his feelings, and his position” (p.47-48).  Hugo’s role in in the suppression of the popular revolt of 1848 was, Bellos argues, “what he had to come to terms with to carry on with his book, and what he [had] to come terns with in his book if it [was] to be the ‘social and moral panorama’ that he intended it to be” (p.113-14).

              Hugo’s position as an establishment figure ended definitively when he became one of the most outspoken and relentless critics of Napoleon III’s 1851 coup d’état.  Forced into exile, he fled initially to Brussels and from there to the Channel Islands, outposts of the British crown off the coast of France. After living first on the Channel Island of Jersey, Hugo and his entourage landed in Guernsey in 1855, with his draft novel gathering dust in a trunk.  He established residence for his family at an elaborate mansion known as Hauteville House, overlooking the sea.  Juliette was assigned to a smaller house nearby.  In 1859, Napoleon III issued an amnesty to those who had opposed his seizure of power in 1851.  Many of the exiles on Channel Islands chose to return to France, but Hugo elected to stay.  But it was not until April 25, 1860, that Hugo went back to the trunk that had followed him from Jersey and pulled out the musty pages of the work he had spent little time on since 1848.

            From that date onward, Bellos’ narrative gathers momentum as he traces the frenetic period that followed.   By this time, Hugo had changed the name of his work from Les Misères to Les Misérables, his innovative term that shifted the meaning from the “poor,” “pitiable” or “despicable” to something more inclusive that suggests solidarity among the less fortunate: a “moral and social identity that had no name before” (p.103).  Hugo finally settled on the names of most of his characters in early 1861. These names have become so familiar, Bellos observes, that it “takes an effort to realize that they all had to be invented, for none of them was taken from the existing stock of French first and family names” (p.115).  Hugo did not finalize Jean Valjean’s name until March 1861.  Previously he had been Jean Tréjan, Jacques Sou and Jean Vlajean.

            Hugo’s work was technically covered by the same contract that had paid him in the 1830s for Notre Dame de Paris.  Because of concerns that the novel might be subject to censorship or litigation if published in France, Hugo shifted to Albert Lacroix and his Brussels-based, politically liberal micro-publishing firm.  Hugo needed a buy out of his original contract and overall wanted more for Les Misérables than had ever been paid to an author for any book. He largely got it, nearly 3 million British pounds in today’s currency, with about 40% of that amount being paid to him up-front, in cash, prior to publication.  Hugo’s deal with Lacroix, worked out in a single day when Lacroix visited Hugo at Hauteville House without having read the draft of the novel, was thus the “contract of the century,” to use the title of one of Bellos’ chapters.

            Hugo got his cash payment on time, in December 1860, because Oppenheim Bank of Brussels agreed to lend money to Lacroix to pay for the book.  For Hugo, debt and crime were two sides of the same coin, and Bellos notes the irony of a novel “so firmly opposed to debt being launched on the back of a major loan – probably the first loan ever made by a merchant bank to finance a book,” thereby placing Les Misérables “at the vanguard of . . . the use of venture capital to fund the arts” (p.143).

          Hugo was still working on the latter portions of the novel when Parts I and II appeared in print on April 4, 1862.  A full two months later, on June 14, 1862, Hugo “corrected the last galley of the last volume of Les Misérables and dispatched it to Brussels.”  Over the course of the previous nine months, he had “turned a single-copy manuscript of a still unfinished work into the greatest publishing sensation of his age” (p.260).

             While Hugo was confined to Hauteville House finalizing his novel, daughter Adèle was in Paris serving as the publicity manager for its launch, working with her brother Charles and Lacroix, both in Brussels. Adèle had to raise the interest and enthusiasm level for the novel to a “pitch so high it would discourage the authorities from banning or seizing the book.  But she also had to let not a scrap of it be seen in advance. The requirement to boost the book while keeping it secret made the publicity manager’s job a work of art” (p.223).   Adèle promoted the book through a billboard campaign.  She also gave advance portions to newspapers, but told them they couldn’t print them until she gave a go ahead.  Thanks to the advance work, the book had been “trumped in all the media then available” in France, a “country that the author refused to enter” (p.228).

            Les Misérables was to go on sale in other major European cities outside France at the same time.  Adèle, Charles and Lacroix thus devised what Bellos labels the “first truly international book launch,” but with an infrastructure that was “barely ready for it: paddle steamers, a rail network that still had more gaps than connections, four-horse diligences and maybe, on the approaches to St. Petersburg, a jingling three-horse sleigh” (p.228).

             From its initial appearances, there was an electricity attached to Hugo’s novel that is difficult for us to fathom more than a century and a half later. The first two parts of Les Misérables sold out in France in two days. The crush for the first copies “verged on a riot” (p.231).  Groups of workers pooled their limited means to buy a copy of the book, passed it around among members of the group, and took turns reading its nearly 2,000 pages to fellow workers who were unable to read.  But the French press did not share readers’ enthusiasm for Les Misérables.  Left wing and socialist critiques were lukewarm; those in the right wing press were stinging.

          Outside France, one recurring criticism of the novel was that it was too rooted in French history, and thus lacked deep meaning for non-French reading audiences. These criticisms were not unfounded, Bellos points out.  Underlying Les Misérables was Hugo’s view that France was the “moral and intellectual powerhouse of the world,” with Les Misérables serving as the “first full formulation of the conventional explanation of the exceptional status of France” (p.235).  One of the larger purposes of Les Misérables, which begins at the end of France’s revolutionary period, was to make the French Revolution the “well-spring of nineteenth-century civilization and so to heal the bleeding wound that it bequeathed to subsequent generations of French men and women” (p.38).

            When the publisher of the first Italian translation of Les Misérables fretted that the legacy of the French Revolution had little relevance to his readers, Hugo responded with a “grandiose reply,” in which he “pulled out all the rhetorical stops” (p.237).  Hugo said that while he did not know whether Les Misérables would be read by all, he had written it for everyone. “I write,” Hugo explained:

with a deep love for my country but without preoccupying myself with France more than any other nation. As I grow older I grow simpler and become increasingly a patriot of humanity.  That is the trend of our times and the law of radiation of the French Revolution. To respond to the growing enlargement of civilization, books must stop being exclusively French, Italian, German, Spanish or English, and become European; more than that, human (p.237).

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          As if to respond himself to the Italian publisher and others in Hugo’s time who considered Les Misérables too Franco-centric, Bellos concludes that the novel’s “moral compass,” extends “far beyond the history, geography, politics and economics of the world in which its story is set. The novel achieves the extraordinary feat of being at the same time an intricately realistic portrait of a specific place and time, a dramatic page-turner with masterful moments of theatrical suspense and surprise, an encyclopedia of facts and ideas and an easily understood demonstration of generous moral principles that we could do far worse than to apply to our lives today” (p.259).  Bellos’ conclusion could also be considered a final riposte to those modern-day skeptics who doubt whether Les Misérables rises to the level of great art.  Few readers of Bellos’ erudite yet easy-to-read account are likely to side with the skeptics.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

July 17, 2018

 

 

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Novel Biography

 

Alice Kaplan, Looking For “The Stranger”:

Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic 

 

            In Looking For The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic, Alice Kaplan,  Professor of Literature at Yale University and one of the English-speaking world’s leading authorities on modern French literature, seeks to bring a fresh perspective to Albert Camus and his signature novel, L’Etranger — known in North America as The Stranger and in Great Britain as The Outsider. Kaplan describes her story as a biography of a book, “connected to the life of its creator but also separate and distinct from him” (p.3).  Finding that Camus’ personality overshadows his novel in traditional biographies, Kaplan aims to tell the story of how Camus “created this singular book” by getting “as close as [she] can to his process and his state of mind as he creates The Stranger” (p.3-4).

          Kaplan’s central premise is that the elements of The Stranger were nearly fixed in Camus’ mind before he started writing.  The job of writing the  novel entailed coaxing these elements out of the mind and onto the written page, then tying them together.  In this sense, Camus “discovered the novel within himself” (p.3).  Kaplan thus examines how The Stranger went from glimmers and flashes in Camus’s mind in the late 1930s to a published volume in 1942, and in the years after publication became one of the 20th century’s most widely read novels.

             The Stranger changed the course of modern literature, Kaplan contends. Camus gave “new energy to the novel, a form that had existed for centuries, by turning it outwards, simplifying its expression and deepening its purpose” (p.83).   The story itself is, as Kaplan puts it, “deceptively simple” (p.1). The lead character, Meursault, like Camus an Algerian of French descent, learns in the book’s opening paragraph that his mother died. He attends her funeral. The day after the funeral, in Kaplan’s succinct summation, Meursault:

goes swimming with a girl friend and takes her to the movies. He writes a letter for a friend who is a pretty rough character. He kills an Arab on a beach in Algiers. He is tried and sentenced to death and, as the novel ends, he awaits execution (p.1).

Camus divided the story into two parts, with Meursault’s first person narration before and after the murder. The Arab whom Meursault kills is given no name in the novel, a matter that raises more questions today than it did in Camus’ time.

          Among The Stranger’s many mysteries is the spelling of the name of the novel’s narrator.  The only surviving draft spells Meursault without the first “u,” Mersault.  Inserting the “u,” Kaplan notes, adds an allusion to the French word for plunge, sauter, and to death, meur, as well as being the name of a famous French wine that apparently impressed Camus as a young man.  Without the “u,” the name has more of a Spanish sound and could have belonged to a European of Spanish descent.  Kaplan raises the possibility that the fateful “u” was added only by the publisher in the final page proofs.   There is no record that Camus ever clarified how he intended to spell his lead character’s name.

            As she endeavors to unlock this and other enigmas of The Stranger, Kaplan also includes enough about Camus the man to give the work some of the flavor of a traditional biography.  With the novel set in pre-independence Algeria, where Camus was born in 1913 and grew up as a dirt-poor European in a predominantly Muslim and Arab country, Kaplan also gives her readers a sense of what Algeria was like as a French colony.  But The Stranger was published not in Algeria but in Paris in 1942, at the height of the Nazi occupation, “one of the most humiliating and complicated climates for publishing in French history” (p.3).  Kaplan thus provides an incisive look into the milieu in which French writers and publishers struggled to survive during the Nazi occupation (a subject covered in more detail in Alan Riding’s fine work, And the Show Went On, reviewed here in September 2012). Kaplan skillfully weaves this contextual background into her biography of Camus’ novel, making her compact and thoughtful book highly engaging and often intriguing.

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          Algeria in the 1930s was in its final decades of colonization before achieving independence from France in 1962 after a protracted war of independence. First colonized in the 1830s, Algeria by the 1930s was more than a French colony: it was part of la France d’outre mer, overseas France (or Greater France), made up of three administrative units that were départements every bit as much as the départements in mainland France.  Algiers, where Europeans lived in neighborhoods that looked like Marseille, was France’s fourth largest city. But liberté, égalité and fraternité went only so far in la France d’outre mer. By one of the odder particularities of colonial rule, Jews born and raised in Algeria were deemed full-fledged, 100% French citizens — like Camus and his family.  Arabs and Berbers, whom we might today term indigenous peoples, enjoyed by contrast almost none of the rights of Frenchmen, making Algeria a society structured on rank inequality.  Although Camus was “appalled by colonial violence and deeply hostile to [French] government policy” (p.51) in the 1930s, he was not yet a proponent of independence.  He saw his duty as a social critic to “strengthen French humanistic values” (p.51) in the administration of Algeria.

          Camus’ family was part of Algeria’s settler class, at the bottom of the European hierarchy, but nonetheless with privileges foreclosed to the Arab population.  His mother was of Spanish descent, illiterate, and almost totally deaf.  His father, an agricultural worker of French descent, died in 1914 at the Battle of the Marne in World I, when his son was one year old. Although brought up in dire poverty, young Camus was a promising pupil in primary school and received a scholarship that allowed him to attend a lycée, an elite French secondary school.  At the lycée, he proved to be an outstanding student, as well as a gifted athlete who enjoyed football, boxing and swimming — a “force of nature, physically unstoppable” (p.9). At age 17, however, Camus contracted tuberculosis, at the time frequently a fatal disease.

             Camus received a degree from the University of Algiers in 1936, where he had studied philosophy and literature. While an undergraduate, Camus met his first wife, Simone Hié, whom he married in 1934, when he was 21 and she was 20. At both the lycée and university, Camus was a student of philosopher Jean Grenier, who helped him develop his literary and philosophical ideas and became Camus’ life-long mentor.  Throughout the 1930s, Camus read avidly, was active in theatre, and became a prominent figure among left-wing intellectuals in Algiers, joining the Algerian Communist Party for a short time.

              After university, Camus worked for the Alger Républicain, a struggling, anti-fascist, anti-colonialist newspaper, where he wrote literary reviews and covered major trials, including several that grew out of ethnic tensions between Europeans and Arabs in Algeria.  As a court reporter, Camus assumed the role of what Kaplan terms a “lobbyist for justice,” earning a “reputation as a troublemaker with the colonial government” (p.39). Camus’ impatience with the hypocrisy of the courts became one of the cornerstones for the novel that was then percolating in his mind.

          As the novel percolated, Camus drew on memories of his own life with his near-deaf mother, “whose vocabulary amounted to 400 words and who had little language to give him beyond her gestures” (p.67).   In this concrete world, “objects come first, concepts last, and each sense is given its due.”  Because his first, most intimate attempts at communication were “defined by the absence of verbal understanding,” as Camus formulated his novel the physical world “became essential” (p.67).  Meursault and The Stranger thus emerged from the conditions of Camus’ own life. But Kaplan is emphatic that The Stranger should not be considered autobiographical.  If anything, Camus was reversing his life story, she argues:

Camus’s childish love for his deaf mother became Meursault’s indifference. The silent world in which he had grown up became the noisy place where Meursault heard every sound. Camus’ hatred of colonial violence expressed itself through Meursault’s murder of an Arab (p.85).

             Camus had a moment of epiphany in the fall of 1938, when he wrote the first five sentences of his percolating novel.  These five sentences did not change over the next four years, prior to publication in 1942. At that moment, Camus realized that “this was his beginning, and he stuck with it” (p.65). By mid-1939, Camus knew that his narrator “was going to kill an Arab,” at a time when there was “an abundance of material in the press about conflicts between Arabs and Europeans” (p.43-44).

            When war broke out later in 1939, Camus, 26 years old, was determined unfit for military service because of his tuberculosis.  With France at war, Alger Républicain was targeted as a security risk that authorities sought to shut down.  Camus then embarked on a four-year odyssey in which he moved back and forth between Algeria and France, ended his marriage to Simon Hié and married Francine Faure, all the while continuing to plug away at The Stranger.  In 1940, Camus landed a job with Paris-Soir, a prestigious French newspaper based in Paris, while he worked on The Stranger every day and part of every night.

           Living and writing in a drab Montmartre hotel, Camus “discovered that he could be in the middle of a paragraph, go off to work his shift at Paris-Soir, come back to the hotel and pick up exactly where he had left off, with no difficulty . . . [H]e had never done creative work with so much ease, and certainly not fiction” (p.79).  By April 1940, Camus had completed chapters 1 and 2 of his novel, and had started on chapter 3.  On May 1, 1940, Camus pronounced The Stranger finished, although significant vetting still lay ahead as he sought a publisher.  But the exaltation he felt upon completion of The Stranger was quickly dissipated by a relapse of tuberculosis — a relapse which subsequently rendered him too weak to read the page proofs of his novel.

           Later that same May 1940, the Nazis invaded France and in June 1940 the occupation of Paris began. Camus followed Paris-Soir out of Paris when the paper moved to Clermont-Ferrand.  By the end of year, however, he returned to Algeria, where he joined his new wife Francine and, relying upon  the uncertain wartime mail service, continued his efforts to find a publisher for The Stranger, along with Caligula and his famous essay The Myth of Sisyphus, two other pieces he had been working on simultaneously. He sent his manuscripts to Jean Grenier, his former lycée and university teacher then living in France, and Pascal Pia, an editor at Paris-Soir.  Both men provided Camus with comments on The Stranger.

              Grenier, still an esteemed mentor, did not give his former student high marks for his work.  In what Kaplan terms “one of the great misunderstandings of a literary achievement” (p.109), Grenier seemed to go out of his way to highlight perceived shortcomings in The Stranger.  Grenier emphasized how the work did not measure up to those of Kafka, as if Camus was intent upon following in Kafka’s path.  In addition, Grenier had the temerity to compare the parts of the draft he liked to his own work.   Grenier’s reservations about The Stranger, Kaplan notes, although deeply discouraging at the time, may have been a gift to Camus that permitted him to break free of his former mentor.

          Pia’s response, by contrast, was “a beautiful example of generous reading, of enablement,” to the point that he and Grenier “seem to have read entirely different books” (p.113).  Pia also sent the manuscript to Roland Malraux, who passed the draft to his brother, renowned French writer André Malraux.  A “wonderful reader” (p.122), André Malraux was wildly enthusiastic about The Stranger and offered several practical suggestions for revisions.  Unfortunately, Malraux’s comments and Camus’ reaction to them have not survived, and we therefore do not know the extent to which Camus followed Malraux’s advice.

        Working independently, Grenier and Pia gravitated toward the major Parisian publishing firm Editions Gallimard as the potential publisher for The Stranger.  Publishing had become a particularly delicate enterprise in occupied Paris, involving an “unpredictable and politically fraught” process (p.132), in which Nazi overseers closely monitored the activities of publishing houses.  The houses were barred from publishing anything by Jewish writers, and otherwise had to stay away from works that looked “political,” a porous term that could encompass any work that reflected unfavorably upon the Nazis and their occupation of France and its capital.  Somehow, The Stranger was able to navigate through these obstacles: the novel was deemed “apolitical” and Camus was of the “right” ethnic heritage.

              On December 12, 1941, Camus authorized Gallimard to publish The Stranger before he had signed a contract, something he never would have done in ordinary times.  On April 21, 1942, after overcoming a wartime paper shortage, the last pages of The Stranger rolled off the printing presses.  In May 1942, Camus received a promised advance, and an advertisement for the book appeared in the Parisian daily newspaper Le Figaro in June.

            In a review in Le Figaro later that year, André Rousseaux, a highly literate, conservative Catholic, delved deeply into the novel and, as we would say in modern parlance, trashed it. Rousseaux showed no sympathy for Meursault, who was “simply inhuman” and Camus’ talent had “made his narrator’s inhumanity all the more despicable” (p.147).   But The Stranger survived this unflattering review, in no small measure because of a far more sympathetic assessment from none other than Jean-Paul Sartre, the ubiquitous philosopher and writer who by then set the terms of intellectual debate in France.

           Sartre’s review, entitled “The Stranger Explained,” was published in February 1943, and served as a major turning point for Camus’ novel. Sartre characterized The Stranger as a work that comes from “across the sea; an outsider novel, interested neither in burying the ancient regime one more time nor in indulging in self-loathing – two commonplaces of the modern French novel.”  The Stranger, Sartre wrote, was thus a “welcome reminder, in a terribly political moment, that a novel could exist with nothing to prove” (p.158-59). The attention that Sartre paid to Camus and his seriousness of analysis “defined The Stranger as an essential contemporary novel,” Kaplan writes. “Once Sartre had spoken, The Stranger’s future was all but guaranteed” (p.156).  Camus became close to both Sartre and his companion Simone de Beauvoir in the years immediately following The Stranger’s publication, although they fell out in the 1950s, ostensibly over political differences during the Cold War.

          The Stranger gained in stature in the late 1940s, as France struggled to reestablish its vaunted cultural life, and soared in esteem throughout the 1950s, the final decade of Camus’s life.  In 1957, Camus earned the Nobel prize for literature, based primarily upon the success of The Stranger (p.197). By this time, Camus had been recognized as a proponent of existentialism, the philosophy most closely associated with Sartre and Beauvoir. It was a label Camus resisted.

         Camus and Sartre had, Kaplan notes, a different notion of human potential that precluded Camus from embracing Sartre’s brand of philosophy. “For Sartre what mattered was consciousness – people getting along, or not getting along with one another.  Whereas for Camus what mattered was the insignificance of man against the world” (p.191).   But these distinctions were overlooked in the 1950s by the “demands of publicity and by the excitement over the latest intellectual fashion” (p.191; existentialism and Camus’s relationship with Sartre are at the heart of Sarah Blackwell’s highly-acclaimed At the Existentialist Café, reviewed here in April 2017).

          However Camus may have considered himself, the world saw him as an existentialist in January 1960, when he died in an automobile accident while riding to Paris with publisher and friend Michel Gallimard and Michel’s wife Janine.   A train ticket was found in Camus’ pocket, indicating that he may have decided only at the last minute to travel back to Paris by car with the Gallimards.  With his premature death,  Kaplan wistfully observes, there would be “no bad books for Albert Camus and he would never disappoint his readers” (p.198-99).

             In the years since Camus’ death, The Stranger has been analyzed in all the modern schools of literary construction and interpretation: in addition to existentialism, these include new criticism, deconstruction, feminism, and post colonial studies.  The most consistent criticism of The Stranger has been the lack of a name for the Arab killed, for many a stark reminder of the raw inhumanity of colonization in Algeria.  In 1962, two years after Camus’ death, colonization came to an end as Algeria achieved independence after a brutal civil war that had begun as World War II ended.

              Recently, Kaplan notes, an Algerian writer, Kamel Daoud, has written a well-received work of fiction, The Meursault Investigation, which tells The Stranger’s story from the viewpoint of the brother of the Arab killed. In the French translation from the Arabic, the narrator’s brother is “Moussa,” a name that “delicately echoes Meursault” (p.206).  But in the English translation, Moussa becomes “Musa,” closer, Kaplan notes, to Camus than Meursault.  Perhaps it is fitting that the Arab with no name in Camus’ novel has become, in the languages of two of history’s most wide-ranging colonizers, an Arab with two names.

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                 In just over 200 pages, Kaplan presents a comprehensive “biography” of one of the 20th century’s most consequential novels – its gestation period, birth, early years, adolescence and adulthood – strengthened by her judicious account of the novel’s author and his times and places.  Her work should appeal to those who have read The Stranger recently as well as those who read it decades ago.  It should also entice those who have not yet read Camus’ enigmatic work to do so.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 27, 2018

 

 

9 Comments

Filed under France, French History, Literature

Living Philosophy

 

 

Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café:

Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails 

            Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails takes a deep but refreshingly casual look at the philosophical way of thinking termed existentialism, giving the term an historical treatment grounded in the actual lives of existentilist philosophers.  Part philosophy, part history, part biography, her  work is also part autobiographical.  Bakewell, a British writer and teacher who is the author of a highlyacclaimed book on Montaigne, endearingly details her own journey in learning about existentialism and explains how major existential writings influenced her personally.  Philosophy, she contends,  “becomes more interesting when it is cast into the form of a life.” Likewise, “personal experience is more interesting when thought about philosophically” (p.32).  Quite so.

More than just about any other form of philosophy, existentialism cannot really be understood without digging into the day-to-day lives of existential philosophers themselves. The existentialist, Bakewell emphasizes, seeks to capture the “quality of experience as we live it rather than according to the frameworks suggested by traditional philosophy, psychology, Marxism, Hegelianism, structuralism, or any of the other –isms and disciplines that explain our lives away” (p.325). Bakewell acknowledges that existentialism is difficult to define more precisely, with no consensus definition. For some, it is “more of a mood than a philosophy” (p.1). Her definition is itself a page long, and she invites her readers to skip over it.

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex and elusive term, existentialism in Bakewell’s interpretation might best be thought of as a way of thinking about existence for human beings. It focuses upon how humans  live the moments large and small in the time allotted to them, i.e., how they exist. Humans are unique beings in that they are free to choose how they live and are responsible for their choices, but only within what Bakewell describes as a “situation,” which includes a person’s own biology and psychology as well as the “physical, historical and social variables” of each human being’s situation.  The existentialist therefore sees human existence,  Bakewell emphasizes, as  “ambiguous: at once boxed in by borders and yet transcendent and exhilarating” (p.34).

Bakewell’s hardcopy cover features sketches of four individuals: Jean Paul Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir at the center, flanked by Albert Camus on their left and Maurice Merleau-Ponty to their right. Sartre and Beauvoir are not only at the center of the cover: they are also the center of Bakewell’s story, occupying the main table at her Existentialist Café, a “big, busy café of the mind” (p.33). Existentialism is above all the story of Sartre and Beauvoir, philosophy’s ultimate power couple, defined by their writings and their lives. Because Sartre and Beauvoir famously lived those lives in Paris, the story’s main setting is France and the Parisian intellectual milieu from the late 1920s until Sartre’s death in 1980 and Beauvoir’s six years later (almost to the day), in 1986.

The Existentialist Café is thus a Parisian café, probably located somewhere on the Boulevard St. Germain in Paris’ 6th arrondissement, much like the actual cafés where Sartre and Beauvoir wrote, drank, met friends and acquaintances, and thrashed out their existential ideas over the course of a half-century. Sartre and Beauvoir became a couple in 1929, when they were 23 and 21 respectively. From the beginning, their relationship was explicitly open-ended, allowing both partners to pursue amorous digressions. But their relationship was also what Bakewell terms a “philosophical demonstration of existentialism in practice, defined by the two principles of freedom and companionship” (p120). Although the bourgeois ideal of marriage held no appeal for either, their “shared memories, observations and jokes bound them together just as in any long marriage” (p.120).

Camus and Merleau-Ponty, not quite existentialists in the sense that Bakewell uses the term, were Sartre and Beauvoir’s contemporaries who drank frequently with them and thought, wrote and argued – often vehemently — about many of the ideas that animated Sartre and Beauvoir.  Merleau-Ponty, far less well known than Camus, Sartre and Beauvoir, merits a full chapter in Bakewell’s work, part of her effort to introduce him to English language readers. Camus and Merleau-Ponty both had fallings out with Sartre and Beauvoir, partially over Cold War political differences and partially because Sartre’s outsized personality led naturally to fallings out with just about everyone he befriended, save Beauvoir. Camus and Merleau-Ponty’s fluctuating relationships with Sartre and Beauvoir constitute one of the book’s two main threads.

The other is the influence exerted upon the couple  by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, Germans of an older generation associated with an approach to philosophy termed phenomenology, existentialism’s direct antecedent. Heidegger, infamous for embracing Nazism in the 1930s and remaining steadfastly unrepentant thereafter, is a brooding, almost villainous presence throughout Bakewell’s study — a scary guy when he drops in at the Existentialist Café, unlikely to be telling many jokes. Some of the 20th century’s foremost thinkers, writers and intellectuals also make short appearances at Bakewell’s café, including Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, Richard Wright and James Baldwin.

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            Existentialism may be a difficult term to define, but its origins are easy to pinpoint in Bakewell’s account: a conversation during the 1932-33 Christmas holiday season, involving Sartre, Beauvoir and Raymond Aron, Sartre’s classmate at France’s renowned Ecole Normale Superièure.  The conversation  took place at Paris’ Bac-de-Gaz café on Boulevard Montparnasse, about a mile from the Boulevard St. Germain cafés Beauvoir and Sartre later made famous.  Sartre, 27, and Beauvoir, 25, were then teaching high school in separate locations in Normandy and were back home in Paris enjoying the holiday break. Aron had just returned from studying philosophy in Berlin, a city then on edge, with Adolph Hitler’s unruly National Socialist party enjoying a surge in representation in Weimar Germany’s Parliament. The three 20 somethings exchanged banter and the latest gossip as they drank apricot cocktails, the Bac-de-Gaz’s specialty.

Aron recounted to his friends his discovery in Berlin of phenomenology, then considered a new approach to philosophy.  He explained how eminent philosophers  Husserl and  Heidegger were turning away from the often-contorted abstractions of traditional philosophy to concentrate on things as they are – being was the key word. Husserl and Heidegger were asking questions such as: what is it for a thing to be? What does it mean to say you are? Looking at the apricot cocktails on the table, Aron told his friends, “If you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!” (p.3). Although Sartre and Beauvoir were familiar with the works of Husserl and Heidegger, in Bakewell’s account this moment at the Montparnasse café was an epiphany for both, the moment when the approach to the philosophy hat we now call existentialism came into being.  Together, over the course of nearly a half-century, Sartre and Beauvoir went  on to transform some of the basic ideas of phenomenology into their own distinct way of thinking.

Sartre subsequently studied  in Germany under Husserl. But the roots of existentialism in Bakewell’s interpretation may be found even further back than Heidegger and Husserl, in the work of 19th century philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard. The “heralds of modern existentialism,” Nietzsche and Kierkegaard “pioneered a mood of rebellion and dissatisfaction, created a new definition of existence as choice, action and self-assertion, and made a study of the anguish and difficulty of life. They also worked in the conviction that philosophy was not just a profession. It was life itself – the life of an individual” (p.20).

20th century phenomenology built upon and systematized Nietzsche and Kierkegaard’s iconoclastic way of thinking. It sought, as Bakewell puts it, to give a “formal mode of access to human experience,” allowing philosophers to “talk about life more or less as non-philosophers do, while still being able to tell themselves they are being methodological and rigorous” (p.43). This mode of access to human experience flourished amidst the turmoil of post-World War I Germany under Hussserl,  considered to be the “father” of phenomenology, and Heidegger, Husserl’s student and subsequently his colleague at the University of Freiburg.  For Husserl, phenomenology meant “stripping away distractions, habits, clichés of thought, presumptions and received ideas, in order to return to what he called the ‘things themselves’” (p.40). As Hitler’s virulent form of xenophobic nationalism took hold in Germany, Husserl, born into a Jewish family, sought to retain the Enlightenment spirit of shared reason and free inquiry (p.132). He died in 1938 at age 79.

Heidegger took phenomenology in a different direction in the 1930s. His appeal to students was that he sought nothing less than to “overturn human thinking, destroy the history of metaphysics, and start philosophy all over again” (p.62). His writings revealed a yearning to go back “into the deep forest, into childhood innocence and into the dark waters from which the first swirling chords of thought had stirred. Back . . . to a time when societies were simple, profound and poetic” (p.131). Heidegger urged his students to exercise   “vigilance,” to transcend the human tendency to become stuck in habits, received ideas, and a narrow-minded attachment to possessions.

But vigilance for Heidegger in Hitler’s Germany “did not mean calling attention to Nazi violence, to the intrusion of state surveillance, or to the physical threats to his fellow humans. It meant being decisive and resolute in carrying through the demands history was making upon Germany, with its distinctive Being and destiny. It meant getting in step with the chosen hero” (p.87). Heidegger “set himself against the philosophy of humanism, and he himself was rarely humane in his behavior” (p.320), Bakewell contends. She notes an instance where Heidegger went out of his way late in life to welcome the Jewish poet and concentration camp survivor Paul Celan to Freiburg. Bakewell terms this the “single documented example” she found in her research of Heidegger “actually doing something nice” (p.304-05).

Sartre was hardly more likeable — “monstrous . . . self-indulgent, demanding [and] bad tempered” (p.321-22). But behind these less commendable qualities, Bakewell finds an endearing man with powerful ideas bursting out “on all sides with energy, peculiarity, generosity and communicativeness” (p.322). Unlike Heidegger, Sartre “moved ever forwards, always working out new (often bizarre) responses to things, or finding ways of reconciling old ideas with fresh input. . .  He was always thinking ‘against himself,’” and he “followed Husserl’s phenomenological command by exploring whatever topic seemed most difficult at each moment” (p.322). Freedom became the great subject of Sartre’s philosophy during the Nazi occupation, central to almost everything he wrote from that point onward.

The connection between description and freedom  fascinated Sartre. “A writer is a person who describes, and thus a person who is free – for a person who can exactly describe what he or she experiences can also exert some control over those events. Sartre explored this link between writing and freedom again and again in his work” (p.104).   Bakewell is impressed by Sartre’s radical atheism, so different from that professed by Heidegger, who “abandoned his faith only in order to pursue a more intense form of mysticism.  Sartre was a profound atheist, and a humanist to his bones. He outdid even Nietzsche in his ability to live courageously and thoughtfully in the conviction that nothing lies beyond, and that no divine compensations will ever make up for anything on this earth.” For Sartre, Bakewell writes with emphasis, “this life is what we have, and we must make of it what we can” (p.323).

Beauvoir in Bakewell’s view was a better fiction writer than Sartre, exploring in her writings how the forces of constraint and freedom play themselves out in everyday lives. One of the 20th century’s “greatest intellectual chroniclers” (p.326), with a “genius for being amazed by the world” (p.109), Beauvoir is best known today for her landmark 1949 feminist tract, The Second Sex, a work “revolutionary in every sense”(p.208) which addressed the “complex territory where free choice, biology and social and cultural factors meet and mingle” (p.226).

How to be a woman was for Beauvoir the “existentialist problem par excellence” (p.215).  Bakewell terms The Second Sex a “confident experiment in what we might call ‘applied existentialism,’” in which Beauvoir “used philosophy to tackle two huge subjects: the history of humanity – which she reinterpreted as a history of patriarchy – and the history of an individual woman’s whole life as it plays itself out from birth to old age” (p.208). The Second Sex in Bakewell’s view is the “single most influential work ever to come out of the existentialist movement” (p.210).

Left-wing politics were a huge part of the existentialist agenda for both Sartre and Beauvoir, with Sartre the more overtly political.  Sartre was never a Communist party member, and his relationship to communism is not the mirror image of Heidegger and Nazism. But Sartre adopted some outlandish left-wing ideas.  He embraced anti-colonialist Franz Fanon’s rejection of Gandhi’s notion of non-violent change, considering violence essential to political progress.  His embrace,  Bakewell writes, was so enthusiastic that he “outdid the original, shifting the emphasis so as to prize violence for its own sake. Sartre seemed to see the violence of the oppressed as a Nietzchean act of self-creation. Like Fanon, he also contrasted it with the hidden brutality of colonialism” (p.274).

Sartre was the direct target of Raymond Aron’s classic 1955 work, The Opium of the Intellectuals, in which his Ecole Normale classmate accused Sartre of being “merciless towards the failings of the democracies but ready to tolerate the worse crimes as long as they are committed in the name of proper doctrines” (p. 266).   Sartre was troubled by the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary but it was not until the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 during the “Prague Spring” that he definitively rejected the Soviet model, “only to praise people like Mao Tse-tung and Pol Pot instead” (p.293).

Cold War differences also upended Sartre and Beauvoir’s friendship with their contemporaries and formerly close companions Merleau-Ponty and Camus. Bakewell describes Merleau Ponty as the “happy philosopher of things as they are” (p.326), the sole thinker at Bakewell’s Existentialist Café who seemed to have had a happy childhood. Beauvoir once considered Merleau-Ponty, born months before her in 1908, potential boyfriend material before concluding that his sunny bourgeois outlook was a poor fit with her more combative disposition. On the cover, Merleau-Ponty is the only one of the three men dressed in a suit and tie, and he seems in this account a little out of place at the Existentialist café — the fellow who joins the gang for a few drinks after a day’s work, then catches the train back to a suburban home to spend the rest of the evening with the wife and kids.

But if the non-Bohemian Merleau-Ponty was out of place at the Existentialist Café, Bakewell considers him the “intellectual hero” of her story for providing the fullest description of “how we live from moment to moment, and thus of what we are” (p.325). Merleau-Ponty brought the insights of psychology and cognitive science to the study of philosophy, and in particular elevated child psychology as an essential component of philosophy, an “extraordinary insight.” Apart from Rousseau, Bakewell notes,  few philosophers before Merleau-Ponty had taken childhood seriously.  Most “wrote as though all human experience were that of a fully conscious, rational, verbal adult who has been dropped into this world from the sky – perhaps by a stork” (p.231).  Very favorable to Communism in the 1940s, Merleau-Ponty became disaffected with its ideological rigidity in the 1950s, at  the time of the Korean War. He laid out his case against Communism in a 1955 book, Adventures of the Dialectic, which included a chapter entitled “Sartre and Ultrabolshevism” that criticized Sartre’s political writings for their inconsistencies and lack of practicality. The work prompted a rift between the two men that healed only upon Merleau-Ponty’s death in 1961 from a heart attack at age 53, when Sartre wrote a glowing obituary about his one-time friend.

Camus is the “new kid on the block” at Bakewell’s Existential Café, a brash outsider from Algeria unwilling to be intimidated by Sartre (although quite willing to be charmed by Beauvoir). Camus’ vision was embodied in his 1942 piece, The Myth of Sisyphus where he argued, as Bakewell puts it, that we must “decide whether to give up or keep going. If we keep going, it must be on the basis of accepting that there is no ultimate meaning to what we do” (p.150). Sartre and Beauvoir rejected Camus’ vision. For them, Bakewell emphasizes, “life is not absurd . . . Life for them is full of real meaning, although that meaning emerges differently for each of us” (p.151).  Camus’ 1951 essay The Rebel laid out a theory of rebellion and political activism that Sartre viewed as an attack upon Soviet Communism and its fellow travelers, notably himself. Dismissing The Rebel as an apology for capitalism, Sartre never forgave Camus for “playing into the hands of the right at a delicate historical moment” (p.257). But when Camus died tragically in an automobile accident in 1960 at age 43, Sartre wrote a glowing obituary, as he did the following year for Merleau-Ponty.

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            Throughout much of history, Bakewell notes, philosophy has been primarily the purview of scholars who “prided themselves on their discipline’s exquisite uselessness” (p.17). Bakewell demonstrates how Sartre, Beauvoir and the other thinkers at her Existentialist Café broke that mold, shaping what she terms “philosophy as a way of life” (p.17).  She further demonstrates how a skillful writer can bring philosophy as a way of life to life through a narrative exquisitely engaging for general readers and specialists alike.

     Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 20, 2017

 

 

 

5 Comments

Filed under Biography, France, French History, Intellectual History

Turning the Ship of Ideas in a Different Direction

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Judt.2

Tony Judt, When the Facts Change,

Essays 1995-2010 , edited by Jennifer Homans

      In a 2013 review of Rethinking the 20th Century, I explained how the late Tony Judt became my “main man.” He was an expert in the very areas of my greatest, albeit amateurish, interest: French and European 20th century history and political theory; what to make of Communism, Nazism and Fascism; and, later in his career, the contributions of Central and Eastern European thinkers to our understanding of Europe and what he often termed the “murderous” 20th century. Moreover, Judt was a contemporary, born in Great Britain in 1948, the son of Jewish refugees. Raised in South London and educated at Kings College, Cambridge, Judt spent time as a recently-minted Cambridge graduate at Paris’ fabled Ecole Normale Supérieure; he lived on a kibbutz in Israel and contributed to the cause in the 1967 Six Day War; and had what he termed a mid-life crisis, which he spent in Prague, learning the Czech language and absorbing the rich Czech intellectual and cultural heritage.  Judt also had several teaching stints in the United States and became an American citizen. In 1995, he founded the Remarque Institute at New York University, where he remained until he died in 2010, age 62, of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, which Americans know as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

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      Rethinking the 20th Century was more of an informal conversation with Yale historian Timothy Snyder than a book written by Judt. Judt’s best-known work was a magisterial history of post-World War II Europe, entitled simply Post War. His other published writings included incisive studies of obscure left-wing French political theorists and the “public intellectuals” who animated France’s always lively 20th century debate about the role of the individual and the state (key subjects of Sudhir Hazareesingh’s How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People, reviewed here in June).  Among French public intellectuals, Judt reserved particular affection for Albert Camus and particular scorn for Jean-Paul Sartre.  While at the Remarque Institute, Judt became himself the epitome of a public intellectual, gaining much attention outside academic circles for his commentaries on contemporary events.  Judt’s contributions to public debate are on full display in When the Facts Change, Essays 1995-2010, a collection of 28 essays edited by Judt’s wife Jennifer Homans, former dance critic for The New Republic.

      The collection includes book reviews and articles originally published elsewhere, especially in The New York Review of Books, along with a single previously unpublished entry. The title refers to a quotation which Homans considers likely apocryphal, attributed to John Maynard Keynes: “when the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir” (p.4). In Judt’s case, the major changes of mind occurred early in his professional life, when he repudiated his youthful infatuation with Marxism and Zionism. But throughout his adult life and especially in his last fifteen years, Homans indicates, as facts changed and events unfolded, Judt “found himself turned increasingly and unhappily against the current, fighting with all of his intellectual might to turn the ship of ideas, however slightly, in a different direction” (p.1).  While wide-ranging in subject-matter, the collection’s entries bring into particularly sharp focus Judt’s outspoken opposition to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, his harsh criticism of Israeli policies toward its Palestinian population, and his often-eloquent support for European continental social democracy.

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      The first essay in the collection, a 1995 review of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, should be of special interest to tomsbooks readers. Last fall, I reviewed Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, a collection of Hobsbawm’s essays.  Judt noted that Hobsbawm had “irrevocably shaped” all who took up the study of history between 1959 and 1975 — what Judt termed the “Hobsbawm generation” of historians (p.13). But Judt contended that Hobsbawm’s relationship to the Soviet Union — he was a lifelong member of Britain’s Communist Party – clouded his analysis of 20th century Europe. The “desire to find at least some residual meaning in the whole Communist experience” explains what Judt found to be a “rather flat quality to Hobsbawm’s account of the Stalinist terror” (p.26). That the Soviet Union “purported to stand for a good cause, indeed the only worthwhile cause,” Judt concluded, is what “mitigated its crimes for many in Hobsbawm’s generation.” Others – likely speaking for himself — “might say it just made them worse” (p.26-27).

      In the first decade of the 21st century, Judt became known as an early and fervently outspoken critic of the 2003 American intervention in Iraq.  Judt wrote in the New York Review of Books in May 2003, two months after the U.S.-led invasion, that President Bush and his advisers had “[u]nbelievably” managed to “make America seem the greatest threat to international stability.” A mere eighteen months after September 11, 2001:

the United States may have gambled away the confidence of the world. By staking a monopoly claim on Western values and their defense, the United States has prompted other Westerners to reflect on what divides them from America. By enthusiastically asserting its right to reconfigure the Muslim world, Washington has reminded Europeans in particular of the growing Muslim presence in their own cultures and its political implications. In short, the United States has given a lot of people occasion to rethink their relationship with it” (p.231).

Using Madeline Albright’s formulation, Judt asked whether the world’s “indispensable nation” had miscalculated and overreached. “Almost certainly” was his response to his question, to which he added: “When the earthquake abates, the tectonic plates of international politics will have shifted forever” (p.232). Thirteen years later, in the age of ISIS, Iranian ascendancy and interminable civil wars in Iraq and Syria, Judt’s May 2003 prognostication strikes me as frightfully accurate.

      Judt’s essays dealing with the state of Israel and the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict generated rage, drawing in particular the wrath of pro-Israeli American lobbying groups. Judt, who contributed to Israeli’s war effort in the 1967 Six Day War as a driver and translator for the Iraqi military, came to consider the state of Israel an anachronism. The idea of a Jewish state, in which “Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded,” he wrote in 2003, is “rooted in another time and place” (p.116). Although “multi-cultural in all but name,” Israel was “distinctive among democratic states in its resort to ethno-religious criteria with which to denominate and rank its citizens” (p.121).

      Judt noted in 2009 that the Israel of Benjamin Netanyahu was “certainly less hypocritical than that of the old Labor governments. Unlike most of its predecessors reaching back to 1967, it does not even pretend to seek reconciliation with the Arabs over which it rules” (p. 157-58). Israel’s “abusive treatment of the Palestinians,” he warned, is the “chief proximate cause of the resurgence of anti-Semitism worldwide. It is the single most effective recruiting agent for radical Islamic movements” (p.167). Vilified for these contentions, Judt repeatedly pleaded for recognition of what should be, but unfortunately is not, the self-evident proposition that one can criticize Israeli policies without being anti-Semitic or even anti-Israel.

      Judt was arguably the most influential American proponent of European social democracy, the form of governance that flourished in Western Europe between roughly 1950 and 1980 and became the model for Eastern European states emerging from communism after 1989, with a strong social safety net, free but heavily regulated markets, and strong respect for individual liberties and the rule of law. Judt characterized social democracy as the “prose of contemporary European politics” (p.331). With the fall of communism and the demise of an authoritarian Left, the emphasis upon democracy had become “largely redundant,” Judt contended. “We are all democrats today. But ‘social’ still means something – arguably more now than some decades back when a role for the public sector was uncontentiously conceded by all sides” (p.332). Judt saw social democracy as the counterpoint to what he termed “neo-liberalism” or globalization, characterized by the rise of income inequality, the cult of privatization, and the tendency – most pronounced in the Anglo-American world – to regard unfettered free markets as the key to widespread prosperity.

      Judt asked 21st century policy makers to take what he termed a “second glance” at how “our twentieth century predecessors responded to the political challenge of economic uncertainty” (p.315). In a 2007 review of Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life, Judt argued that the universal provision of social services and some restriction upon inequalities of income and wealth are “important economic variables in themselves, furnishing the necessary public cohesion and political confidence for a sustained prosperity – and that only the state has the resources and the authority to provide those services and enforce those restrictions in our collective name” (p.315).  A second glance would also reveal that a healthy democracy, “far from being threatened by the regulatory state, actually depends upon it: that in a world increasingly polarized between insecure individuals and unregulated global forces, the legitimate authority of the democratic state may be the best kind of intermediate institution we can devise” (p.315-16).

      Judt’s review of Reich’s book anticipated the anxieties that one sees in both Europe and America today. Fear of the type last seen in the 1920s and 1930s had remerged as an “active ingredient of political life in Western democracies” (p.314), Judt observed one year prior to the economic downturn of 2008.  Indeed, one can be forgiven for thinking that Judt had the convulsive phenomena of Brexit in Britain and Donald Trump in the United States in mind when he emphasized how fear had woven itself into the fabric of modern political life:

Fear of terrorism, of course, but also, and perhaps more insidiously, fear of uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of one’s daily life.  And perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach.. . This is already happening in many countries: note the arising attraction of protectionism in American politics, the appeal of ‘anti-immigrant parties across Western Europe, the calls for ‘walls,’ ‘barriers,’ and ‘tests’ everywhere (p.314).

       Judt buttressed his case for social democracy with a tribute to the railroad as a symbol of 19th and 20th century modernity and social cohesion.  In essays that were intended to be part of a separate book, Judt contended that the railways “were and remain the necessary and natural accompaniment to the emergence of civil society. They are a collective project for individual benefit. They cannot exist without common accord . . . and by design they offer a practical benefit to individual and collectivity alike” (p.301). Although we “no longer see the modern world through the image of the train,” we nonetheless “continue to live in the world the trains made.”  The post-railway world of cars and planes, “turns out, like so much else about the decades 1950-1990, to have been a parenthesis: driven, in this case, by the illusion of perennially cheap fuel and the attendant cult of privatization. . . What was, for a while, old-fashioned has once again become very modern” (p.299).

      In a November 2001 essay appearing in The New York Review of Books, Judt offered a novel interpretation of Camus’ The Plague as an allegory for France in the aftermath of German occupation, a “firebell in the night of complacency and forgetting” (p.181).  Camus used The Plague to counter the “smug myth of heroism that had grown up in postwar France” (p.178), Judt argued.  The collection concludes with three Judt elegies to thinkers he revered, François Furet, Amos Elon, and Lesek Kołakowski, a French historian, an Israeli writer and a Polish communist dissident, representing key points along Judt’s own intellectual journey.

***

      The 28 essays which Homans has artfully pieced together showcase Judt’s prowess as an interpreter and advocate – as a public intellectual — informed by his wide-ranging academic and scholarly work.  They convey little of Judt’s personal side.  Readers seeking to know more about Judt the man may look to his The Memory Chalet, a memoir posthumously published in 2010. In this collection, they will find an opportunity to savor Judt’s incisive if often acerbic brilliance and appreciate how he brought his prodigious learning to bear upon key issues of his time.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
July 6, 2016

3 Comments

Filed under American Politics, European History, France, French History, History, Intellectual History, Politics, Uncategorized, United States History, World History

Extraordinarily Intense and Abstract

FrenchThinking.1

FrenchThinking.2

Sudhir Hazareesingh, How the French Think:

An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People 

 

     You may wince at the title of Sudhir Hazareesingh’s book, How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People.  Attempting to explain in book form “how the French think” seems like an audacious if not preposterous undertaking. Yet, however improbably, Hazareesingh, a professor at Oxford University who also teaches in Paris, somehow accomplishes the daunting tasks he sets for himself: identifying the “cultural distinctiveness of French thinking” (p.3) and showing how and why the activities of the mind have “occupied such a special place in French public life” (p.7).

     In his sweeping, erudite yet highly-readable work, Hazareesingh affably guides his readers through three centuries of French intellectual history. Hazareesingh approaches with light-hearted humor his impossibly broad and – certainly to the French – highly serious subject. He assumes that it is possible to make “meaningful generalizations” about the “shared intellectual habits of a people as diverse and fragmented as the French” (p.17). He is most concerned in presenting selected “meaningful generalizations” about how the French – and particularly France’s intellectual elite — have looked upon the country, its past, its major political institutions, and its place in the larger world.  He places particular emphasis upon the theories and ideas which have sustained France’s political divisions since the 1789 French Revolution.

     Hazareesingh finds French thinking to be both extraordinarily intense and, by Anglo-American standards, extraordinarily abstract. Ideas in France are “believed not only to matter but, in existential circumstances, to be worth dying for” (p.17). He identifies a quintessentially French “fetish” – a term used frequently throughout his book – for “unifying theoretical syntheses and for formulations which are far-reaching and outlandish – and sometimes both” (p.111). The notion of knowledge as “continuous and cumulative, which is such a central premise of Anglo-Saxon epistemology,” is, Hazareesingh argues, “alien to the French way of thinking” (p.21).  French ideas tend to be the product of a form of thinking which is “not necessarily grounded in empirical reality,” giving them a “speculative” character (p.21).

     More than elsewhere, French thinking tends to look at issues as binary choices, between either A or B: nationalism or universalism; individualism or collective spirit; spiritualism or science. French thinking also reserves a special place for paradox, producing passionate rationalists, revolutionary traditions, secular missionaries and, on the battlefield, glorious defeats.  France’s vaunted sense of exceptionalism, which lies in its distinct “association of its own special quality with its moral and intellectual prowess” (p.11), endures today side by side with a pervasive sense of pessimism and decline – malaise.  In the 18th century, French political philosopher Baron de Montesquieu observed that French thinkers had mastered “doing frivolous things seriously, and serious things frivolously” (p.7), and Hazareesingh finds that the same “insouciance of manner” also endures in today’s France.

      Hazareesingh arranges his work into ten chapters, working toward the present. He starts with the influence of 17th century philosopher, mathematician and scientist René Descartes on all subsequent French thinking. Within a Cartesian framework, he then discusses in the next five chapters distinctive 19th century modes of thought in France: exotic sects devoted to mysticism and occultism; the powerful influence of science on 19th century French thinking; the evolution of notions of a political Left and Right; and the emergence of a French view of “the Nation” and French identity toward the end of the century.  Although focused on the 19th century – and in some cases, the 20th century up to the fall of Third French Republic in 1940 – these chapters also address the contemporary presence and influence of the chapter’s subject matter. Each could serve as an informative and entertaining stand-alone essay.

      The chapter on the emergence of the political Left and Right in the aftermath of the French Revolution is both the thread that ties together the book’s chapters on 19th century French thinking and its  link to the final four chapters, on post World War II French political and social thought. These final chapters revolve around the providential leadership style of Charles de Gaulle and the persistent attraction of communism as the heart of the French intelligentsia’s opposition to de Gaulle. Along the way, Hazareesingh discusses a host of post-World War II French thinkers, particularly the ubiquitous Jean Paul Sartre.  He also provides an illuminating overview of the Structuralist movement, which gained great sway in academic circles, especially in American universities, for its grandiose analysis of human culture. Its key thinkers – Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Fourcault, Jacques Derrida – seem to personify France’s proclivity for abstract if not obtuse thinking.  In his final chapters, Hazareesingh describes the widespread contemporary French malaise, with French historians and its political intelligentsia looking at the country, its past and future, with a deepening sense of pessimism and despair.

* * *

     In Hazareesingh’s estimation, modern French thinking began in the 17th century with René Descartes and his belief in the primacy of human reason, the “defining feature of the human condition” (p.50). Descartes’ signal contribution was to “accustom men increasingly to found their knowledge on examination rather than belief” (p.33), thereby rejecting arguments based upon religious faith.  The esprit cartésian, “based on logical clarity and the search for certainty” (p.33), rests on the conviction that reason is the “only source of our ability to make moral judgments and impose a durable conceptual order on the world” (p.50).

     The distinction between a political Left and Right, Hazareesingh writes, has often been viewed as a manifestation of the Cartesian character of French thought and its “propensity to cast political ideas in binary terms and to follow lines of reasoning to their extremes” (p.133). The distinction originated in the early phases of the French Revolution, when supporters of the king’s prerogative to veto legislation gathered on the right side of the 1789 Constituent Assembly, while opponents of the royal veto grouped on the Assembly’s left side.  Throughout the 19th century and up to the fall of the Third Republic in 1940, the subsequent debate between Left and Right was “largely between advocates and opponents of the French Revolution itself” (p.136).

     Central to the mindset of the many tribes on the Left during the 19th century was a “belief in the possibility of redesigning political institutions to create a better, more humane society whose members were freed from material and moral oppression” (p.137). This entailed above all establishment of a republican form of government, with power “exercised by elected representatives in the name of the people” (p.137). Political change “could be meaningful only if it was comprehensive and cleansing” (p.143).  The conceptual origins of European socialism and social democracy may be found on the left side of the 1789 Constituent Assembly.

      The 18th century Swiss political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau provided a major share of the conceptual underpinning for France’s Leftist sensibilities.  Rousseau concluded that it was “plainly contrary to the law of nature” that the “privileged few should gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitudes are in want of the bare necessities of life” (p.79-80). Rousseau’s protean political philosophy appealed simultaneously to the “libertarian yearning for absolute freedom, the progressive quest for a better world and the collectivist desire for equality” (p.80). In the mid-19th century, the ideas of Auguste Comte further animated the Leftist vision. One of the 19th century’s “most original standard-bearers of Cartesianism” (p.33), Comte’s comprehensive attempt to unite all forms of scientific inquiry into a single overarching philosophical system inspired a republican faith in education and science as keys to building a progressive, secular and just society.

     The counterpoint to the vision of the French Left was shaped by Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (discussed here in May 2015 in a review of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, And the Birth of Right and Left).  Burke’s Reflections constituted “such an iconic representation of anti-1789 sentiment that copies were burned in bonfires by revolutionary peasants” (p.138). Like Burke, the political Right in France defended the entrenched institutions that the French Revolution sought to uproot — notably, monarchy, aristocratic privilege, and the Catholic Church – and stridently resisted the democratic and republican impulses of the Left. The language of the Right was “typically about the avoidance of conflict, the defense of hierarchy, the appeal to tradition and religious faith. . . the Right was predominantly concerned with the preservation (or restoration) of social stability” (p.141).

     In the first half of the 19th century, the most fervent proponents of the Right’s conservative vision were Catholic traditionalists and the royalists who never relinquished their dream of a restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. Hazareesingh credits the ultra-royalist polemicist Joseph de Maistre with encapsulating the Right’s aversion to everything associated with the 1789 Revolution. De Maistre saw the events of the 1790s as a “manifestation of divine retribution for decades of French irreligiosity and philosophical skepticism” (p.138). The notion  of universal rights of man was to de Maistre a “senseless abstraction.”  De Maistre is best known to history for his observation that he had “seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians. . . but as to man, I have never met one” (p.138).

      A central theme in the mythological imagination of the Right in the latter half of the 19th century was the “presence of sinister forces working to unravel the fabric of French society.” These destructive agents were “all the more noxious in that they were often perceived to represent alien interests and values” (p.150).  Jews in particular came to be identified as posing the ultimate existential menace to traditional conservative ideals, as manifested in the notorious affair involving Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish Army officer wrongly convicted of spying for Germany in 1896 (three books on the Dreyfus Affair were reviewed here in 2012).  In the 20th century, the French political Right contributed to the “genesis of fascist doctrine” in Europe (p.147). The demise in 1944 of the collaborationist Vichy regime that ruled much of France during the years of German occupation marked the effective end for this traditional, counter-revolutionary French Right.

 

* * *

      After World War II, two developments reshaped the schism between Left and Right: the emergence of a “new synthetic vision of Frenchness, centered around Charles de Gaulle, and the entrenchment of Marxist ideas among the intelligentsia” (p.191). In their “schematic visions of the world after the Second World War, and in their bitter opposition to each other,” Gaullists and Marxists, “symbolized the French capacity for intellectual polarization and their apparent relish for endlessly reproducing the older divisions created by the Revolution” (p.196).

     De Gaulle modernized French conservative thought by “incorporating more fraternal ideals into its scheme of values, notably, by granting voting rights to women and, later, ending French rule in Algeria” (p.192). Although his leadership revolved around his own charismatic persona as the incarnation of the grandeur of France — echoing Napoleon Bonaparte – De Gaulle was also relentlessly pragmatic.  He “did not hesitate to discard key elements of the heritage of the French Right, especially its hostility to republicanism and its xenophobic, racialist and anti-egalitarian tendencies” (p.192).

     The French intelligentsia’s “extraordinary fascination” with communist theory was “born out of the First World War and its apogee in France between the 1930s and the ‘60s coincided with one of the most troubled periods in the nation’s modern history” (p.102). Although ostensibly identifying with the Soviet Union as a model of governance, French communism “remained deeply rooted in [France’s] historic political culture” (p.107). Through the 1960s, communism offered its intellectual adherents a “way of experiencing the values of friendship, human solidarity and fraternity” (p.107).

     Throughout the post-War period, Jean Paul Sartre dominated the French intellectual landscape. The “flamboyant personification of the French ‘intellectual,’” Sartre combined high visibility interventions in the political arena with an “original synthesis of Marxism and existentialism” and a “commitment to revolution, ‘the seizure of power by violent class struggle’” (p.230). After Sartre’s death in 1980 and the election of reformist Socialist President François Mitterrand in 1981, Hazareesingh observes a change in the tone of the discourse between the political Left and Right.

      The ideals at the heart of Sartre’s “redemptive conception of politics – communism, revolution, the proletariat – lost much of their symbolic resonance in the 1980s,” Hazareesingh indicates. Marxism “ceased to be the ‘unsurpassable horizon’ of French intellectual life as the nation elected a reformist socialist as its president, the Communist Party declined, the working class withered away and the Cold War came to an end” (p.236).   By the time Mitterrand was elected in 1981, the “division between Left and Right was already beginning to decline. . . the Right had moved away from its republican rejectionism . . . [and] the Left completed the movement in the 1980s by abandoning the universalist abstractions that underpinned progressive thought: the belief in human perfectibility and the sense that history had a purpose and that capitalist society could be radically overhauled” (p.158).

* * *

        Today, France grapples with a “growing sense of unease about its present condition and its future prospects” (p.21), the French malaise. The factors giving rise to contemporary malaise include the decline of the French language internationally, coupled with France’s diminished claim to be a world power. But since the late 1980s, France’s pervasive pessimism seems most closely linked to issues of multi-culturalism and integration of France’s Muslim population.  Like every European nation with even a modest Muslim population, how to treat this minority remains an overriding challenge in France.  Few thinkers. Left or Right, are optimistic that France’s Muslim population can be successfully integrated into French society while France remains true to its revolutionary republican principles.

     Hazareesingh sees the rise of France’s nationalistic, xenophobic National Front party, originally headed by Jean-Marie Le Pen and now by his estranged daughter, Marine Le Pen, as not only a response to the pervasive sense of French national decline but also a telling indication of the diminished clout of today’s political intelligentsia.  He chastises the “collective inability of the intellectual class” over the past decade to “confront the rise of the Front National and the growing dissemination of its ideas among the French people — a silence all the more remarkable as, throughout their history, and notably during the Dreyfus Affair, French intellectuals were at the forefront of the battle against racism and xenophobia. It is a measure of the disorientation of the nation’s intellectual and cultural elites on this issue that some progressive figures now openly admit their fascination with Jean-Marie Le Pen” (p.256-57).

* * *

     Despite the doom and gloom that he perceives throughout contemporary France, Hazareesingh concludes optimistically that in facing the challenges of the 21st century, it is “certain” that the French will “remain the most intellectual of peoples, continuing to produce elegant and sophisticated abstractions about the human condition” (p.326). Let’s hope so – and let’s hope that Hazareesingh might again provide clear-headed guidance for English-language readers on how to understand these sophisticated abstractions, as he does throughout this lucid and engaging work.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

June 9, 2016

 

 

 

9 Comments

Filed under France, French History, History, Intellectual History, Political Theory, Politics, Uncategorized

Into Thin Air

Schiff

Stacy Schiff, Saint-Exupery: A Biography

           When I was in the 9th grade, I had a charismatic English teacher who, in addition to requiring his pupils to memorize 3,000 vocabulary words and diagram sentences – even then, very unfashionable teaching approaches – introduced us to the world of serious literature. Among the authors we met were Dickens (“Great Expectations”), Faulkner (“The Bear”), and Shakespeare (“Julius Caesar”). But the centerpiece of our 9th grade literary experience was Antoine St. Exupéry‘s “The Little Prince,” which my teacher considered one of the best books ever written – my recollection is that he said it was the best book. Since then, I have often asked myself whether this lofty elevation of St. Exupéry’s iconic work was anything more than hyperbole spooned out to gullible 9th graders. In posing that question over the years, I realized that I knew next to nothing about the author of this work. So when I saw Stacy Schiff’s biography of St. Exupréy on sale at my favorite second hand bookstore, I pounced, hoping to learn a little about the man considered one of France’s greatest 20th century authors, and not solely for “The Little Prince.”

           Throughout this volume, Schiff shows herself to be a sophisticated biographer, tying a mind-boggling amount of detail into a coherent whole (skills which worked for her more recently when she received a Pulitzer Prize for her best-selling biography “Cleopatra”). She portrays St. Exupéry as a towering figure, 6 feet 4 inches, yet a “marvelous child” (p.325) with the “sensibility of a little girl” (p.76). He was an accomplished if somewhat eccentric aviator in aviation’s early days, demonstrating a “remarkable aptitude for mechanics” (p.132). As an aviator, Schiff contends that St. Exupéry was as popular among his peers “as John Glenn initially made himself among the early astronauts” (p.214). One friend summed up St. Exupréy the aviator: “When the flight is normal Saint Exupréy is dangerous; given complications, he’s brilliant” (p.330).

           St. Exupéry spent several formative years in the Sahara desert as a pilot for Aéropostale, one of France’s first overseas airmail services. He worked as an author during off hours, constantly scribbling drafts on scraps of paper. During his time in the desert, St. Exupéry pondered the “importance of responsibility, the fellowship it nurtures among men, the priority of an interior life” (p.29). The Sahara formed a backdrop in the 1930s, for several works that helped make him one of France’s leading 20th century literary figures, especially “Night Flight” and “Wind, Sand and Stars.” These works raised questions that St. Exupéry grappled with throughout his life:

how to reconcile an individual’s thirst for profit with some social good; how to allow for maximum liberty in a world prone to tyranny; how to apply the happy lessons of Aéropostale to a social structure; how to nourish and motivate man in a machine age (p.289).

           St. Exupéry was also what the French call a châtelain, with nobility in the blood, little in the bank account, and a certain “helplessness with financial matters” (p.77). On several occasions, he was forced to return to France, more specifically Paris, where he was a generally unhappy member of the Parisian café intelligentsia, mingling uneasily with Sartre, de Beauvoir and others at the Café des Deux-Maggots and Brasserie Lipp. He fell deeply in love with a woman he did not marry and married a woman one can only characterize as a fruitcake. Schiff suggests that the Little Prince’s painful attempt to figure out the elusive rose was an expression of St. Exupréy’s fractious relationship with his wife. During World War II, St. Exupréy joined many other French literary figures in New York.

           “The Little Prince” was written largely during St. Exupréy’s New York years. Schiff describes the work as a “satire for the adult world” at war (p.389), by far St. Exupéry’s “most popular and enduring work” — even if usually found on bookshelves “alongside Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and the Wizard of Oz” (p.449). “The Little Prince” has been translated into more languages – nearly 80, Schiff indicates – than any other original work in French, and still sells over 100,000 copies annually in the United States and in France.

           Although St. Exupréy was not on de Gaulle’s good side, he yearned to fight for his country and left New York to fly missions for the Free French. On the last day of July 1944, St. Exupréy took off on a solo mission and simply disappeared, “into thin air,” the title of Schiff’s chapter on his death. Even today, there is no certainty and few serious theories on how St. Exupréy met his end. But Schiff shows that he was despondent in the weeks and months immediately preceding his last mission. She does not state that he perished in a suicide mission, but the enigma that surrounds his death seems consistent with such an end. St. Exupréy was the “most celebrated French man of letters to die in the war,” Schiff notes wryly, “for the simple reason that most French men of letters did not see active combat after the fall of France in 1940” (p.438).

           In her biography of St. Exupréy and his world, Schiff portrays an author as beguiling, enchanting and mystifying as the Little Prince: “too broad for any category” and “fated to be misconstrued” (p.446). St. Exuprey’s work, she concludes, was “rich in spirit” and “makes us want to overreach ourselves. It makes us dream” (p.447) — a conclusion which I think my 9th grade English teacher would be happy to endorse.

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
June 5, 2013

2 Comments

Filed under Biography, French History, Literature, Uncategorized

Where’s the Light?

 

Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity:

The British, French and American Enlightenments

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[Introductory Note: This commentary is another which I first wrote in in 2009, also based on a book I pulled off the shelf at my favorite used book shop in Washington, D.C. that year, while on leave from my mission in Bulgaria.  I’ve since come to the conclusion that “The Roads to Modernity,” published in 2004, is an important work because it challenges accepted notions of the 18th century Enlightenment.  I’ve always found the terms “Enlightenment” and “Enlightenment values” to be slippery ones, used loosely, without single governing definitions (I am faced with a similar situation in my day job, where the term “rule of law” dominates the agenda, but without a single or accepted definition — and few in my field consider this a problem).  Gertrude Himmelfarb is therefore to be lauded for her effort to bring some precision to the historical notion we term the Enlightenment. 

 

Himmelfarb is closely associated with the neo-conservative movement, which I wrote about in reviews in mid-2012.  She is the wife of the late Irving Kristol, one of the founding fathers of neo-conservatism, and the mother of William Kristol, a well-known American conservative commentator.  Some of her scholarship can be seen as having a partisan edge, and the closer her subject approaches the present, the more tendentious I find her writing to be.  But her views of the Enlightenment deserve serious attention, even from those who do not share her political outlook.] 

 

In “The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments,” Gertrude Himmelfarb details three distinctive forms of the “forward march of the human spirit” – Denis Diderot’s definition of the Enlightenment — in the 18th century in the three countries most frequently associated with modern democracy, Great Britain, France and the United States.  Himmelfarb makes her purpose clear at the outset: she seeks to “reclaim” the Enlightenment “from the French who have dominated and usurped it” (p.3).  For Himmelfarb, the French Enlightenment elevated reason and saw it as diametrically opposed to religion, with insidious side effects. 

 

In Great Britain and the United States, by contrast, reason did not have that preeminent role and religion was not the paramount enemy.  The driving force of the British Enlightenment was not reason but “social virtues,” whereas in America it was “political liberty.”  For both, reason was an “instrument for the attainment of the larger social end, not an end in itself,” with religion an “ally, not an enemy” (p.19).  In Himmelfarb’s view, the contributions of 18th century American and British thought to modernity and modern democracy far surpass those of France.  Indeed, to Himmelfarb, France’s contributions are antithetical to democracy.  

 

In her brutal dissection of the French Enlightenment, Himmelfarb contends that  esteemed philosphes Diderot and Voltaire were elitists who were contemptuous of  common people.  Voltaire’s contempt led him to a cynical espousal of religion for the lower classes, as a means of keeping them in line, with the more enlightened elements of the population eschewing backward religious practices (Himmelfarb excuses a similar tendency of some of the American founding fathers, p.211).  Disdaining Christianity, Voltaire was even more disparaging of Judaism.  To associate the French Enlightenment with democracy, moreover, is to ignore the historical record.  The philosophes favored enlightened despotism and embraced Rousseau’s collective notion of the general will, which Himmelfarb considers inherently hostile to individual liberty (p.167).   

 

            Himmelfarb also seeks to establish that there was in fact a distinctive 18th century British Enlightenment, a point at odds with conventional academic wisdom.  In addition to Adam Smith and David Hume (whom some scholars see as representatives of a distinctly Scottish Enlightenment), she finds both Edmund Burke and John Wesley central to the English Enlightenment.  A host of sentiments, which Himmelfarb summarizes by “social virtues” or “moral sense” – benevolence, compassion, sympathy, “fellow-feeling,” a natural affection for others– comprised the “social ethic that informed British philosophical and moral discourse” in 18th century Britain” (p.33). 

 

18th century Britain was also characterized by a “conspicuous absence of the kind of animus to religion – certainly nothing like the warfare between reason and religion – that played so large a part in the French Enlightenment” (p.38). In contrast to France, British moral philosophy was “reformist rather than subversive, respectful of the past and present even while looking forward to a more enlightened future” (p.51).  Himmelfarb quotes de Tocqueville’s observation that he found in England what he had been deprived of in France, a “union between the religious and political world, between public and private virtue, between Christianity and liberty” (p.52). 

 

If social virtues were at the forefront of philosophical speculation and social policy in 18th century Britain, in America these virtues constitute a backdrop to “political liberty,” the principles and institutions appropriate to a new republic.  “As it was liberty that was the driving force of the American Enlightenment, so it was political theory that inspired the Constitution, designed to sustain the new republic” (p.191-92).  Like the  British, and in contrast to the French, Americans did not turn against religion itself.  “Instead, they incorporated religion, of almost every degree and variety, into the mores of society” (p.207).  The Founders in America “did not look upon religion as the enemy of liberty” and American churches did not “look upon liberty as the enemy of religion” (p.211). 

 

Himmelfarb raises many points worthy of a good academic debate.  Should we really speak of three (or more) Enlightenments?  Peter Gay, a towering authority on the Enlightenment, considers it a single phenomenon radiating out from France, as Himmelfarb acknowledges.  Was the French Enlightenment as unenlightened as Himmelfarb contends?  One of my most memorable college teachers was a leading authority on Diderot who taught his clueless undergraduates to revere not only Diderot but also Voltaire and the other 18th century French philosophes.  Several decades later, I am not ready to discard this deeply inculcated reverence.  Further, I wonder whether Burke, seminal theorist though he was, should be considered an Enlightenment thinker.  One can answer these questions differently from Himmelfarb, yet be impressed by the cogency and readability of her – dare I say “enlightening”? — work. 

 

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

January 13, 2013

13 Comments

Filed under English History, French History, United States History

Culture: Crisis and Responsibility

Alan Riding, And the Show Went On:

Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris

 
In “And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris,” Alan Riding provides an arresting, thoroughly-researched account of intellectual and cultural life in Paris from 1940 to 1944.  During this dark period, the Nazis occupied the City of Lights and much of the rest of France.  Meanwhile, the political capital of unoccupied France ended up in Vichy, under the leadership of 84 year old World War I hero, Marshal Phillipe Pétain.  Although Riding’s story is primarily about Paris, as his title indicates, it is also a story about the unique role which culture plays in French society.  As Riding notes early in his book, culture is “inseparable from France’s very image of itself” (p.5).

Through the medium of culture, Riding plunges into some of the most complex questions generated by World War II and the German occupation of France.  He asks at the outset:  how had artists and intellectuals “addressed the city’s worst political moment of the twentieth century? Did talent and status pose greater moral responsibility? Was it possible to flourish without political freedom?” (p.xi).  In his probing analysis, Riding takes a hard look at the often-blurry lines between collaboration, accommodation and resistance among French artists and intellectuals.  The last portion of the book delves into how the cultural show also went on after the occupation.  Here, Riding highlights the peculiarly French notion that the intellectual bears a particular responsibility to society, beyond those of other citizens.  Riding shows the uneven manner in which post-occupation France applied this notion to its immediate, discomforting past.

Riding treats all the major categories of artistic, intellectual and cultural life: writing, music, cinema, drama, painting, night life, poetry, even fashion.  Beyond purging cultural life of all Jewish influence, the Nazis’ overall approach seemed laissez-faire.  Nazi policy, Riding writes, was driven in part by a “deeply held German inferiority complex toward . . .[French] culture that for the previous two centuries had dominated Europe” (p.51).  Although in some senses allowing the show to go on, the Nazis’ broader goal, coming directly from Hitler and Goebbels, was that “no cultural activity taking place in France should radiate beyond the country’s borders” (p.51).

Music was one area where Germans had traditionally excelled, and thus an exception to the German sense of cultural inferiority.  Parisians found that they enjoyed German bands and concerts.  This created the danger of “humanizing the Nazis: If so many uniformed Germans attended concerts or operas because they, too, loved music, did this make them less than monsters? . . . Was a country that had given the world Bach and the Berlin Philharmonic all bad?” (p.143).  Overall, musical life in this period was intense.  Unsurprisingly, Wagner, Hitler’s favorite, was the “most performed German opera composer in occupied Paris” (p.154).  Herbert von Karajan, a Nazi party member on the rise in Germany, relocated to Paris and became its resident celebrity conductor.

The German occupation is remembered as a good period for French cinema.  The Nazis would allow “nothing anti-German or excessively nationalistic to appear on French screens, but even Goebbels regarded cinema as a good way of keeping the French distracted” (p.188).  “Enemy” films, first British, then American, were banned.  With the exception of German movies, which few French filmgoers wanted to see, “foreign competition largely disappeared” (p.187).  The movie industry thus had a captive audience, “one that was eager to flee the ennui of daily life into the laughter and tears of the screen (and, in winter, into the warmth of a crowded theater)” (p.187).  220 films were made in France between June 1940 and August 1944, but “only a handful were memorable and the most popular of all, Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du paradis, was released only after the liberation of France” (p.187).  Most were “light comedies, costume dramas, fantasy films, love stories or thrillers” (p.194).  By 1943, movie attendance was 40% higher than in 1938.

In some ways, the occupation was also a golden age for French theatre.  Here too, the Nazis wished to ensure that the theatre was “cleansed” of Jews and Jewish influence, but otherwise maintained a  hands off policy (p.208).  The “popularity of theatre as an escape mechanism was immense . . . Most productions were straightforward entertainment – historical dramas, romantic comedies or bedroom farces of the kind that had long defined the city’s théâtre de boulevard” (p.207).   Box office revenue jumped by 163% between 1941 and 1943.  One theatre enthusiast who was also part of the resistance quipped that you “can’t be a Nazi in a theatre” (p.207).  Unlike cinema, which lost some leading directors and actors to Hollywood, almost every significant non-Jewish theatrical figure stayed in France.

The Nazi affinity for fine art and absconding with artistic treasures throughout Europe has been well documented.  In Paris, by 1941 the Nazis had turned their art-looting operation into a “smooth-running machine, one all too often oiled by French informers offering tips on where Jewish-owned art could be found” (p.163).  It was striking “how many wealthy French people jumped at the chance to sell family treasures.  Some went out of their way to invite German dealers or buyers to inspect their homes for paintings or objects of interest” (p.170).

By Christmas 1940, almost all of the “extraordinary array of music halls, cabarets, nightclubs and bordellos” which had flourished in Paris in the 1930s were once again open for business (p.91).  This nightlife remained “part of the city’s identity, it provided a sense of normality and it gave jobs to many thousands of actors, singers, dancers and strippers, as well as to seamstresses, furriers, cooks and waiters” (p.107).  In many music halls, it was possible for Parisians to enjoy themselves “without having German uniforms beside them because stand-up comics and chansonniers performed their numbers in French, often peppered with argot, which view German soldiers could understand” (p.91).  Keeping the Parisian nightlife scene alive was one way Parisians could demonstrate to themselves – “and perhaps also to the Germans – that all was not lost.” (p.107).

Poetry “proved best suited to the conditions of the occupation” (p.278).  Poetry denouncing the occupation and extolling the resistance “could only circulate secretly.  Its function was different.  Direct, emotional, patriotic, often violent, it was not written for posterity; it was closer to agiprop than art” (p.340).   A poem required “little paper, it was easily remembered and recited, it could be copied by hand and left on a café table, it could be broadcast by the BBC and above all, it carried a sharp emotional punch.  Further, resistance poetry enjoyed a monopoly since no collaborationist writer ever tried to express his Fascism in verse” (p.277-78).

But the complexity and ambiguity of artistic and intellectual life in occupied Paris is best examined through France’s writers.  Few abandoned writing and most seemed “all too eager to continue publishing, even if that meant bowing to censorship” (p.67).  Publishers agreed on principles of auto-censorship that precluded publication of new books by Jewish or anti-German authors.  Sale or circulation of many previously published books was also banned.  Oddly, these included Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which “suddenly recovered its nineteenth century reputation for immorality” (p.239), Riding wryly notes, and Hitler’s own Mein Kampf, because a French translation had been published in 1934 without the authorization of the Führer’s German publisher.

In Riding’s view, Jean Bruller’s Le silence de la Mer, published clandestinely in 1942, was among the best works of fiction to appear during the occupation, portraying the “pain of defeat in a refined literary form” (p.340).  Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française was a “still finer example of fiction in time of war” (p.340).  Although written in 1941 and 1942, it was not published until 2004.  Better-known works also appeared during the occupation, including  Jean-Paul Sartre’s L’Etre et le néant and Les Mouches;and Albert Camus’ L’Etranger and Le Mythe de Sisyphe.   Camus’ publisher asked him to cut out references in Le Mythe de Sisyphe  to the Jewish Franz Kafka, to which Camus agreed (p.243), while Sartre cleared Les Moches with Nazi censors (Les Mouches was a play that first appeared on the Parisian stage on June 3, 1943; I note this date solely for personal reasons: on the other side of the Atlantic, my parents were married that day).

Sartre, even then France’s celebrity philosopher, was a special case.  He took a teaching job in 1941 at a well-known Parisian secondary school, le Lycée Condorcet, manifesting no misgivings in replacing a Jewish teacher who had been dismissed a few months earlier.  Despite his concessions to the realties of the occupation, Sartre was able to reinvent himself after liberation as the archetypical resistance writer and intellectual.  Even though Les Mouches had been approved by Nazi censors, he contended after the war that the play was a resistance piece, written to convince the French that “to murder a German is to be guilty of murder, but morally it is the right thing to do, though he who does commit murder will find no moral solace in the act” (p.221).

Sartre went further after the occupation to suggest that intellectual resisters were more important than saboteurs.  “Our job was to tell all the French, we will not be ruled by Germans.  That was the job of the resistance, not just a few more trains or bridges blown up here and there”  (p.343).  With the passage of time, Sartre saw French citizens as having two choices in the 1940-44 period, collaborate or resist.  “So every French person had the free choice to be part of the resistance, in their heads anyway, even if they actually did nothing, or to be an enemy” (p.343).  In truth, Riding writes, the options and dilemmas facing individual artists were “far more varied,” discounting Sartre’s role in the intellectual resistance as “minimal” (p.336).

After the liberation, all disciplines set up comités d’épuration, literally purification committees, which were part of an overall campaign of épuration culturelle, or cultural purification. The comités were authorized to investigate and interrogate collaborationist artists and writers.  They could also recommend cases for trial by civil courts and issue professional sanctions, such as a ban on performing or publishing for up to two years.  Such trials could be “incestuous affairs” since the judges and the judged often knew each other and may have worked together before and even during the occupation (p.320).   Among the various comités d’épuration, that for writers was the “best organized and most radical” (p.321).

In September 1944, the writers’ comité named 12 traitors, among them Robert Brasillach.   Virulently anti-Semetic and pro-German even before the war, Brasillach expressed his views from the mid-1930s onward in a wide-read weekly tract Je suis partout (“I’m Everywhere”).  He enlisted in the French Army when the Nazis invaded France, was captured and ended up in a German POW camp.  The Nazis quickly recognized that Brasillach was a kindred spirit and released him to return to Paris so he could continue as a German propagandist among the French.

The case against Brasillach, Riding emphasizes, had nothing to do with his anti-Semitism but whether he had supported the enemy.  Brasillach had “gone beyond opinion to finger people who had ended up jailed or deported” (p.324).  The government commissioner trying the case explained that Brasillach’s treason was “above all a treason of the intellectual” (p.324).  The written record Brasillach had created as a writer did not give him wiggle room to reinvent himself in the manner of Sartre and, after deliberations of six hours, the comité condemned him to death.

Brasillach was the only writer or cultural figure whose death sentence Charles De Gaulle did not commute.  Prime Minister of France’s Provisional Government from 1944 to 1946, De Gaulle endorsed the French view that writers had special responsibilities.  He later explained that he had commuted sentences on principle where the writer or artist had not served the enemy directly and passionately.  “In the opposite case – the only one,” he said, referring to Brasillach, “ I did not feel I had the right to pardon.  For in literature, as in everything, talent carries with it responsibility” (p.328).

During the occupation, De Gaulle had looked with suspicion on the resistance as a threat to his power and played down its significance.  In his strategy to reunify the country after the liberation, however, he portrayed France as a “nation of resisters, with only a small number of genuine collaborators” (p.318-19).  If it is urgent to punish true traitors, De Gaulle said in a speech in October 1944, it is nonetheless “not a good idea to remove from French society those people who, in the name of legality, were misled to follow the marshal [Pétain]” (p.319).  As Riding sums up the General’s view, De Gaulle “favored punishment but not deep soul searching” (p.321).

The French Communist Party (PCF in French) complicated De Gaulle’s effort to avoid deep soul searching, and was a force to be reckoned with on the comités d’épuration.  The PCF emerged enormously strengthened from the occupation, winning 27% of seats in a new Constitutional National Assembly in October 1945 and participating in coalition governments until 1947.  The PCF espoused hardline positions on punishment for collaborators, working to “impose its thinking on a new generation of artists and creators” (p.345).  Given PCF influence on the comités d’épuration, many, not surprisingly, “began to resemble a Stalinist purge” (p.327).

No consensus ever emerged on how severely “intellectual treason” should be punished.  Rather, France’s épuration culturelle was “rife with inconsistencies; among artists, writers and journalists, with comparable records of collaboration, some were sanctioned, others jailed, a handful were even executed, while a good many were never arrested” (p.321).  Only in hindsight did one pattern appear: “the longer an arrest, trial and sentence could be delayed, the lighter the punishment” (p.321).

Outside Communist circles, the thirst for revenge against writers gradually began to ease.  “One important factor was the recognition that writers and journalists were being punished far more severely than, say, many industrialists who had profited from doing business with the Nazis” (p.327).  By the early 1950s, the sins of cultural collaboration had “largely been forgotten” (p.344).  Most French people seemed “happy to embrace the myth of the resistance, to bury the memory of their own ambivalences and to forget the occupation.  Artists and writers were among the beneficiaries.  Few were those who, within a few years, were not again performing or painting or publishing” (p.337).

Riding ends by asking whether the mixed record of artists and intellectuals during the occupation lowered their general esteem within French society and undermined the principle that the intellectual has a special responsibility to society.  Certainly, he contends, there were fewer who could pretend to be moral guides for the country because so many had “failed the test during the occupation” (p.350).  But Riding nonetheless makes clear that there was a résistance culturelle, driven by acadre of artists and writers who “refused to accept the occupation and felt the need to do something about it” (p.342).  Their main achievement, Riding writes admiringly, was to “preserve a core of decency among practitioners of the arts . . .they remained true to what they believed were the responsibilities of artists and writers” (p.342). One of Riding’s many achievements in his absorbing book is to remind us of this cadre, as he untangles still blurry lines between collaboration, accommodation, and resistance among French artists and intellectuals during the dark years of Nazi occupation.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

August 26, 2012

6 Comments

Filed under France, French History, History, Politics

Caroline Moorehead, A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France


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This book was my parents’ 2011 selection from my annual Christmas “wish list.” It is really two short books in one, approximately equal in length. The first half depicts France under German occupation and the rise of the French Resistance movement. The second takes place outside occupied France, in hellish Nazi prison camps, first Birkenau, part of the Auschwitz complex, then Ravensbrück. Both halves revolve around 230 women who were part of the Resistance before being deported East in January 1943 on a “Train in Winter,” le Convoi des 31000. Forty-nine of the 230 survived a twenty-seven month ordeal, liberated in the spring of 1945. “Those who came back to France in 1945 owed their lives principally to chance,” Moorehead writes, “but they owed it too in no small measure to the tenacity with which they clung to one another, though separated by every division of class, age, religion, occupation, politics and education” (p. 7).

Moorehead’s story of the growing solidarity between the women prisoners begins with the early phase of German occupation in 1940. To the great relief of the French, this phase was relatively civil, not marked by the savagery that had accompanied the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. Indeed, the Nazis were initially “astonished by the French passivity” (p.13). The French government ended up in Vichy, a spa near Clermont-Ferrand in the heart of the Auvergne. Led by World War I hero Marshal Phillipe Pétain, the Vichy regime embarked upon a path of collaboration with the German occupiers. Pétain and his followers – “Catholic, conservative, authoritarian and often anti-Semitic,” as Moorehead describes them (p.15) — believed that collaboration would lead to a France:

purged and purified, returned to a mythical golden age before the French revolution introduced perilous ideas about equality. The new French were to respect their superiors and the values of discipline, hard work and sacrifice and they were to shun the decadent individualism that had, together with Jews, Freemasons, trade unionists, immigrants, gypsies and communists, contributed to the military defeat of the country (p.15).

Not all French adhered to Pétain’s vision of what he called la France éternelle. The resistance to the Vichy government and Nazi occupation included every class and ideology within French society. But members of the French Communist Party (PCF in French) were in the forefront of the movement, a useful reminder that, whatever else its failings, the PCF was way ahead of much of the rest of France in seeing the existential threat that Nazism posed to French civilization. 119 of Moorehead’s 230 women were PCF members or supporters and as such “already knew a good deal about survival and the clandestine life” (p.25).

In 1940, when the occupation began, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were allies, confusing the French Communists who nonetheless rallied to the cause of the Resistance. But when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the confusion ended and everything changed. In the summer of 1941, the chasse aux Juifs, the hunt for Jews, began in earnest, “so zealously pursued by the French collaborators that it was said that even the Nazis were impressed” (p.75-76). The final portions of the first part of Moorehead’s book reveal strong and heroic acts of resistance, along with betrayal of many of the resistants by their fellow countrymen. As the first half ends, the 230 women were placed in Romainville, a camp in France, before being sent East to Birkenau on the train in winter, le Convoi des 31000.

Throughout the second half of the book, Moorehead expounds upon how the solidarity among the French women imprisoned in the camps deepened and became a key to their survival. The French women “took pride in their closeness” and were “as kind, helpful and polite towards one another as they would have been back home” (p.212). They were helped by their “particular skills as women, caring for others and being practical,” making them “less vulnerable than men to harsh conditions and despair. Adaptability was crucial, resignation fatal” (p.220). The women became so cohesive, “so attuned to each other’s frailties, so watchful and protective, that planning how to keep the group alive had become a way of life” (p.215).

Nonetheless, two and a half months after reaching Birkenau, the initial group of 230 French women was down to eighty. “A hundred and fifty of them had died, from typhus, pneumonia, dysentery, from dog bites and beatings, and gangrenous frostbite, from not being able to eat or sleep, or from being gassed” (p.218). The ones still alive were the stronger women, “those neither too old nor too young, those sustained by belief in a new world order; or, quite simply, because they had been very lucky” (p.218).

Fifty-two of the 230 women survived the ordeal in Birkenau before being transported in early 1944 on another train in winter to Ravensbrück, north of Berlin. At Birkenau, the “primary goal had been to exterminate the inmates, with the majority being gassed as soon as they arrived, and the others worked to death” (p.254). Ravensbrück, although hellish, was set up as a commercial enterprise to fuel the German war machine, with death being “simply a by-product and not an end” (p.254).

There were 5,000 French women at Ravensbrück. Those who came from recognized groups, Moorehead writes, communists, Catholic Bretons, the intellectual bourgeoisie, were “team players, and the easiest to get on with” (p.255). As a national group, the French were more cohesive than the other nationalities, more prone to look after their own” (p.255). The friendship between them “stronger than anything they had known in their previous lives, had become their credo; it defined them” (p.254).

In addition to luck and solidarity, there were unanticipated keys to survival:

Discussion groups were started, on everything from raising rabbits to esoteric questions of philosophy. Despite the lack of books and paper, there was a huge hunger for knowledge, particularly the learning of languages, though very few women chose to learn German (p.250).

Forty-nine of the fifty-two who went from Birkenau to Ravenbrück lived to see the end of the war, thirty four of them communists (with four of the forty-nine still alive as Moorehead’s book went to press). Fourteen were widows, their husbands shot by the Nazis or dead in the concentration camps. The forty-nine went home “emaciated, haunted, grieving for the dead companions, but alive” (p.278). In their two years and three months in the camps, the survivors had:

witnessed both the worst and the best that life had to offer, cruelty, sadism, brutality, betrayal, thievery, but also generosity and selflessness. Their reserves of strength and character had been pushed to the very far limits of endurance and every notion of humanity had been challenged (p.288-89).

The return to France “proved as hard and as unhappy as anything they had known. Return, they said, was a time of ‘shadowy places, silences and things not said’” (p.289). The survivors had to face questions about how to remake their lives, and how to convey to their families what they had been through. The camps were “so extreme, so incomprehensible, so unfamiliar an experience, that the women doubted that they possessed the words to describe them, even if people wanted to hear; which, as it turned out, not many did” (p.293). When the women did talk about why they survived, they asked themselves repeatedly:

what it was in their particular story or character that enabled them to live, whether it was their optimistic nature, or because they had been able to use their skills as women, caring for others. In the end, they always came back to the same two reasons: they had lived because each of them had been incredibly lucky, and because of the friendship between them, which had protected them and made it easier to withstand the barbarity” (p.313-14).

The second half of Moorehead’s book is difficult to read, but a poignant reminder of the brutality and depravity which characterized the camps. With its emphasis upon the role of women in the Resistance and the camps, the book is a useful supplement to much of the literature on the subjects, heavily concentrated on men. Throughout the second half, I asked myself whether Moorehead might be overstating the extent to which friendship and solidarity were the women’s keys to survival; whether, in the end, it all came down to raw luck. But I was moved by her depictions of the “worst and best that life had to offer,” and understood how the valiant women who survived felt wiser, “in some indefinable way,” because they comprehended, as Moorhead writes, the “depths to which human beings can sink and equally the heights to which it is possible to rise” (p.314).

Thomas H. Peebles
Washington, D.C.
March 26, 2012

6 Comments

April 8, 2012 · 2:29 pm

David McCullough, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris

 “Good Americans when they die go to Paris”

Thomas Gold Appleton

Every year, I prepare a “wish list” of recently-published books which I would like to read, and send that list to my parents for them to select a Christmas gift. It’s a system that has worked well over more than two decades. This year, I shared the list with my daughters, who went to one of a handful of English language bookstores in Brussels and came up with David McCullough’s “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.” They could not have made a better choice, selecting one of my favorite authors, David McCullough, writing on one of my favorite subjects, Paris.

McCullough is truly a national treasure, the rare author who uses jargon-free prose to tell spellbinding stories about serious historical subjects. On Paris, I am close to Thomas Gold Appleton’s view, quoted above. Perhaps a little more skeptical than Appleton about an afterlife (but still wishing and hoping), I would modify his quotation to say, “When they go to Paris, good Americans think they’ve died and gone to heaven.” McCullough’s book was thus a natural for me, and he didn’t disappoint.

Most Americans know that Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and John Adams spent formative and productive years in 18th century Paris. After that, we tend to fast forward to the 20th century, to Papa Hemmingway holding court in Montparnasse cafés and Gertrude Stein demonstrating to her compatriots that Paris was most unlike Oakland, with lots and lots of there there. Not many of us know much about Americans in Paris between Jefferson, Franklin and Adams’s time, and that of Hemmingway and Stein.

McCullough fills that gap, shedding much new light on the City of Lights. “The Greater Journey” concentrates on the period 1830-1890, showing convincingly that Paris held a similar magnetic attraction for 19th century Americans. In the early portion of the book, McCullough focuses on Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph but then an upcoming artist affectionately known as the “Lightning Man;” and James Fennimore Cooper, already a well-known novelist who somehow found inspiration to write frontier stories while in Paris. Most prominent at the end are the painters John Singer Sargent, considered the leading portrait painter of his generation; and Mary Cassatt, one of the few women associated with Impressionism. But luminaries such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Charles Sumner, Henry James, P.T. Barnum and Tom Thumb all had stints in Paris, which McCullough ably recounts.

In terms that still apply today, McCullough describes the transcending spell of Paris for 19th century Americans, “derived from light, color, and architecture” (p.46). The great appeal of Paris then, as now, was “what man built there. There was nothing stunning about its natural setting – no mountain ranges on the horizon, no dramatic coastline. . . The ‘genius of the place’ was in the arrangements of space and architecture, the perspectives of Paris” (p.206). Paris was a “continuing lesson in the enjoyment to be found in such simple, unhurried occupations as a walk in a garden or watching children at play or just sitting observing the human cavalcade” (p.44).

But if Paris was, as Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote, an “immense panorama of art and architecture – life, motion, enterprise, pleasure, pomp, power” (p.214), it was also home to new ideas and practices which had not yet reached American shores. Charles Sumner, who became a leading anti-slavery Senator from Massachusetts, observed that a small number of blacks and mulattoes in his philosophy course at the Sorbonne were “well received” by the other students. With his American perspective, this natural coexistence “seemed strange” to Sumner, prompting him to conclude that the “distance between free blacks and whites among us is derived from education, and does not exist in the nature of things” (p.131). McCullough terms this a “stunning revelation” for Sumner, a moment of epiphany and arguably the most important of the many new ideas which young Americans would bring back to the United States in the 19th century (p.131-32).

American artist Emma Willard was delighted to see many young women artists in Paris. Women were not confined to the periphery of the Parisian art world; they produced works “much esteemed” and bearing a high price (p.42; Willard was, however, much embarrassed by the extent to which the “female anatomy in its natural state was so conspicuously glorified on canvas and in sculpture,” a view the French found “absurdly squeamish;” p.43). Nathaniel Willis was even more delighted to find himself greeted by “only attractive women” in men’s apparel shops. “No matter what the article of trade . . .you are waited on by girls always handsome and always dressed in the height of the mode” (p.34), Willis wrote home.

In the early decades of the 19th century, moreover, Paris was the cutting-edge center of medical research and training, far ahead of the United States. Women were well integrated into the medical profession, which was largely closed to women in America. Not surprisingly, the first woman doctor in the United States, Elizabeth Blackwell, studied medicine in Paris. Further, in the United States, with its puritan traditions, “most women would have preferred to die than have a physician – a man – examine their bodies” (p.115). Not so in France. A Philadelphia surgeon, Augustus Gardner, wrote that the French woman “knows nothing at all of this queasy sensibility. She has no hesitation, not only to describe, but to permit her [male] physician to see every complaint” (p.115).

McCullough does not flinch from covering one of the darkest periods in Parisian history, 1870-71, when France lost the Franco-Prussian War, at great cost to the city and the country; followed by a round of unfathomable pillage, burning and destruction, the Paris Commune uprising. American Ambassador to France Elihu Washburne wrote that both sides in the uprising committed “acts which disgrace human nature” (p.325). The “vandalism of the dark ages pales into insignificance before the monstrous crimes perpetrated in this great center of civilization in the last half of the nineteenth century” (p.324), he despondently informed the American Secretary of State.

Washburne was the only major diplomat to remain in Paris during the madness of the Franco-Prussian war and Commune uprising, steadfastly seeking peace and working to end the carnage. McCullogh credits Washburne’s copious diary entries as critical in preserving the historical record of the dark period, “substantial in quality” and written “so extremely well, with clarity, insight, and such great empathy for the human drama at hand” (p.328-29). If Washburne’s decision to stay had resulted only in his diary, McCullough concludes, he nonetheless “would have made an enormous, singular contribution” (p.329).

Befitting our national character, American commerce and trade were instrumental in helping Paris and France rebound in the 1870s after the war and the Commune. A Paris newspaper wrote:

It is generally acknowledged that the trade of Paris is now manly sustained by American visitors who spend more money among the shopkeepers than all the rest put together . . . we only wish there were more of them, for this is about the best and most effective way in which Uncle Sam can aid the new French Republic (p.334).

One of the most interesting aspects of McCullough’s book is the extent to which the experience of young Americans in Paris sharpened their sense of what it means to be an American. The American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (thoroughly American despite the French-sounding name) wrote that his time in Paris had been a “wonderful experience, surprising in many respects, one of them being to find how much of an American I am.” (p.423). Nathaniel Willis, when he wasn’t gazing at pretty girls in men’s apparel shops, found he could always pick out fellow American men in Paris. The distinguishing feature, he observed, was the “independent, self-possessed bearing of a man unused to look up to anyone as his superior in rank, united to the inquisitive, sensitive, communicative expression which is the index to our national character” (p.67). An irate Samuel Morse vigorously defended his friend James Fennimore Cooper when Cooper came under attack for being “boastful, even bombastic about being an American” (p.92). The Lightning Man declared his admiration for his friend’s “proud assertion of the rank of an American . . . for I know no reason why an American should not take rank, and assert it, too, above any artificial distinctions that Europe has made . . .There can be no condescension to an American. An American gentleman is equal to any title or rank in Europe, kings and emperors not excepted”(p.93).

One side of Paris that appears missing is Franco-American romance. McCullough notes artist Mary Cassatt’s “open friendship” with her fellow impressionist painter Edgar Degas, “but apparently no more than that” (p.352). Mary Healy, the daughter of the American painter George Healey, married a French writer and professor (p..336). But there do not appear to have been many liaisons dangerouses between Americans and Parisians in the 19th century (unless, of course, the wily McCullough is holding a treasure trove of information on this tantalizing subject, which he is saving for what would surely be a blockbuster best-seller).

In “The Greater Journey,” David McCullough has produced a work about 19th century Americans’ experience in Paris that bears his trademark, rich in little-known facts and incisive observations, pieced together into a typically engaging narrative. Vive Monsieur McCullough.

Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D.C.

February 27, 2012

10 Comments

Filed under France, French History, History